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Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life Paperback – November 2, 2004

4.6 out of 5 stars 28 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In Lonely Planets, astronomer David Grinspoon is buoyantly optimistic about the possibility that we are not alone in the universe. Grinspoon, who serves as principal scientist in the Department of Space Studies at the Southwest Research Institute, lays out a detailed but not boring case for life on other planets, dropping authoritative quotes and goofy footnotes in equal measure. The Grinspoon family hung out with Carl Sagan and other astronomical royalty, giving young David an early appreciation for SETI and the heady astrobiological theorizing of the 1970s. In the 21st century, scientists are still split on the question of extraterrestrial life. Grinspoon believes that a "natural philosophy" approach is the key to furthering our knowledge in this field, since there is precious little evidence with which to apply the scientific method. Instead of looking for the familiar and testable, he writes, we should expect the unexpected.

Expecting to find DNA elsewhere is like expecting a Star Trek universe with humanoid aliens who speak English and insist that we join them for dinner at eight.

Lonely Planets is a substantial book, covering the origins of life on Earth as well as the changes in religious and social thought that have affected astronomers' search for other planets and their theoretical inhabitants. Grinspoon's style is exuberant, even a little cocky, and the result is delightful readability. Lonely Planets lets readers share the dismay of finding out there are probably no Martians and the thrill of wondering if there might be Europans. "I think our galaxy is full of species," writes Grinspoon. "The wise ones are out there waiting for us to join them." --Therese Littleton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Principal scientist at the Southwest Research Institute's department of space science, Grinspoon offers an up-to-date picture of the search for extraterrestrial life and the prospects of finding it in a universe that we now know contains other solar systems. It also covers the nearly four centuries that the search has been under way since the initial observations of Renaissance astronomers. As soon as biology joined the inquiring minds, theories multiplied thick and fast; the historiography of the scientific debate is complex and has the potential for being unbearably dull. But Grinspoon handles the wide variety of material necessary for a coherent narrative with great aplomb, marshalling material such as the charming Conversations, a 17th-century dialogue by a French astronomer in which a philosopher and a marquise debate astronomical topics. Even when he turns to physics, the author runs to phrases like "the Sun in its wild youth" to describe the energy output of various kinds of stars, making this book less a popularization than a personable chat on life, the universe and everything.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; 49374th edition (November 2, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060959967
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060959968
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1.1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,441,606 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
David Grinspoon has written the book I wanted to write, and he's done it so very well that I'll be forever thankful I never got to it! David's style is so direct, so personal, and so punctuated with delightful humor that it's like sitting in his living room with him. At the same time he is dealing with cutting edge scientific knowledge in the revolutionary field of astrobiology and he speaks of it from understanding his science at depth.
David covers the subject from the Epicureans of ancient Greece to the SETI Institute while passing informatively through the Copernican revolution, up to the minute astrophysics, the origins of DNA, crop circles and alien abductions along the way. If you want to know what we know today, and how we got here, this book puts it all, not only into perspective, but into relationship.
What's particularly wonderful about David's approach in this book is that he is willing to look at and deal with things which other scientific writers are unwilling to touch. He makes quite clear when he's off into speculation or his own musings on the more controversial subjects, but he nevertheless digs into them. I found myself again and again nodding my affirmation (or more truthfully, interrupting my wife to read a paragraph to her) as he approached some of the more bizarre ideas that circulate in the public mind with sympathetic understanding while not compromising his scientific grounding.
David closes the book by diving into those things we all wonder about when we let our kid come out; are we alone, who else might be "out there", will we ever make contact, and how are we related? Are we part of the plan of the universe or some freak of circumstance?
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Format: Hardcover
What planetologist David Grinspoon is working on in this book is similar to the consilience that biologist Edward O. Wilson talked about in his book of that name and what C.P. Snow dreamed about in his discussions of the two academic cultures half a century ago. But what Grinspoon is reconciling is the informed and creative speculation of the human mind with the rigorous requirements of scientific orthodoxy. He uses the almost forgotten term "natural philosophy" as a means to the end of reconciling the dreamer in his soul with the scientist in his head.
Grinspoon represents a new breed of scientist not afraid to speculate aloud and in public about matters that cannot be proven, to joke about them, to relate to them personally and passionately, and to say that it shouldn't be career-threatening for a scientist to venture into the realm of the unknown.
He realizes how complex and wondrous is all that we know and especially all that we don't know, and that in a world of uncertainty one can still make decisions and speculate while recognizing that there is a place where science ends and natural philosophy begins. In this regard is a nice quote from Bertrand Russell:
"When one admits that nothing is certain one must, I think, also add that some things are more nearly certain than others." (p. 374)
This is perhaps Grinspoon's major point. He seeks to separate not just pseudoscience from science, but the likely from the unlikely, and to allow the unproven to remain the unproven but without prejudice. He admits his biases and he gives his reasons for them. At the same time he allows that he could be wrong and hopes that in some cases he is. "Aliens on the White House lawn?
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Astrobiology is fascinating both philosophically and as a scientific discipline, however the lack of direct evidence (to date) for life beyond earth is the achilles heal of the subject. David Grinspoon spends much of his time in the book presenting a suite of possibilities for the existence of intelligent life elsewhere and how extraordinary it may be. But I felt annoyed at his meandering. My main gripe was that I learnt more about Dr Grinspoon, his academic career, his association with Carl Sagan, his adolescent interests in science fiction and his skill at inserting throw-away footnotes in the book. It seemed narcissistic and full of special pleading:- I wanted information about how we can further the discipline of astrobiology, I hoped, page after page that he'd show how we should `follow the water' and signatures of biology elsewhere (like spectra from extra solar planet atmospheres for example). Nothing much there, just more discourse on how planetary biospheres are living entities (Gaia). There are tighter, more informative books on astrobiology out there, in which the subject is the science, not the author. Surprising it has such a positive following, pity and sorry to be a grump.
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Format: Hardcover
David Grinspoon is a protégé of Carl Sagan, and has quite ably taken it on himself to continue his mentor's quest for making science palatable to the masses. Grinspoon may have even beaten the master here, as he can ably combine science, culture, and religion without Sagan's Achilles Heels of condescension and strict anti-spirituality. In this fascinating book, Grinspoon takes us on a fantastic voyage of speculative thought mixed with real science concerning the possibilities of intelligent life in the universe. This is a true return to "natural philosophy" as Grinspoon is not afraid to tackle the larger spiritual and existential issues that are usually frowned upon by scientists.
After a pretty interesting history of belief in extraterrestrials, Grinspoon offers an excellent summary of all the branches of science that are involved with this new field of "astrobiology," or the study of possible alien life. Comparative planetology, physics, and geology play a large role in determining how many worlds out there would be capable of supporting life (Jupiter's moon Europa is the current local favorite). From biology we find that we don't really know exactly what life is, and we should not necessarily expect aliens to be dependent on water and oxygen. The final parts of the book, dealing with religion, psychology, and sociology (including some debunking of ufology and other fads) show that we cannot expect aliens to be similar to us in any of those areas, and they may be so different from us culturally, mentally, and physically that we may not even recognize them as other intelligent life forms, especially when they are likely to be more advanced than us.
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