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Planetary Dreams: The Quest to Discover Life Beyond Earth Paperback – May 18, 2001

3.8 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Are we alone, literally freaks of nature, just one planet of living, breathing things amidst a seemingly infinite, lifeless desert? This is one of the big questions posed by human nature, one that we have traditionally looked to religion to answer, but that is now coming within the grasp of science. Despite--or perhaps because--of this, we find increasing opposition to allocating resources to space exploration. Biochemist Robert Shapiro is an unabashed supporter of this research, and his book Planetary Dreams: The Quest to Discover Life Beyond Earth is both a compelling response to the stay-at-homes and a pleasantly readable overview of what we know and don't know about the origin of life here and elsewhere.

Contrasting those who believe in special creation or a cosmic fluke that produced life only once with adherents to a life principle that favors its development wherever conditions suffice, Shapiro suggests that the best way to resolve the issue is simple: let's go looking. He feels that the importance of this question to most people has been underrated by those who (nobly) want to meet our basic needs here on earth before we take off for new worlds, and that we can accommodate everyone by shifting burdens of research funding and reinspiring the public with a new emphasis on this work as a search for meaning. Whether or not his ideas will move us forward, the lively, thoughtful Planetary Dreams is one of the best starting points for learning about the search for the origins of life here and, maybe, out there. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Controversy rages in scientific circles over where next we should search for life in our solar system. Some argue that Mars is still the likeliest place to harbor life, despite the maddeningly inconclusive results to date, while others advocate probing the moons of Jupiter. Shapiro (Life Beyond Earth, etc.) uses his background in biochemistry to ponder the possibility that life exists on other worlds and to posit the best places to find it. He presents a convincing case that bizarre creatures may be found in the ammonia clouds swirling around Jupiter or high in the noxious sulfuric acid clouds that choke Venus. Going further than most authors in the field, Shapiro examines the possibility of life forms not dependent on oxygen and water. Unfortunately, his book isn't as well organized or as rigorous as some other recent books on the subject, such as John Lewis's Worlds Without End (1998). Shapiro dawdles through three introductory chapters before getting down to the substance of his book, and many of his digressions into fantasy scenarios and discussions of creation science add little to his argument. At times, though, Shapiro's teaching skills shine through; his use of imaginary scale models to explain distances, for example, conveys superbly the almost unimaginable vastness of space. 8-page color insert. Agent, Katinka Matson.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (May 18, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0471407356
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471407355
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,880,245 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
"Planetary Dreams" is not science fiction. It is a clear-headed, and yet exceptionally entertaining, discussion of the likelihood of life on other worlds and of why space exploration should be an important goal for those of us on earth. Shapiro displays his twin talents as rigorous biochemist and fascinating story-teller. This is an important book for anyone interested in the future of our own species.
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Format: Hardcover
I had this book on my shelf for over a year before I took it down for a read. I thought I might be bored by it, since it is a popular treatment of a subject I know pretty well. But Shapiro brought the subject to life in a rather interesting way, dealing not only with the particular issues asociated with the chemistry of life's origin, but with the deeper philosophical issues that lie behind the debate. I especially liked his illuminating flight of fancy entitled "A Dinner Out of time," which features Frederich Engels, Herbert Spencer, and Teilhard De Chardin (Marxist, libertarian, and Christian exponents of the idea of progress in nature, respectively) at one table, and Jacques Monod, Steven Jay Gould, Fred Hoyle, and William Jennings Bryan (all opposed to the idea) at the other. Shapiro is right on the mark when he asserts that the philosophical bias of the opposing camps has a strong role in directing their interpretations of the data, whether of Earth's history, the Viking results, of the Alan Hills meteorite. He is also right in his thesis stating what the stakes in this apparently abstract controversary actually are. All in all, a fine book.
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Format: Hardcover
In science, scepticism comes easily - it's part of the job. If you are fluent with metaphor, as Shapiro certainly is, analyses of others' work can be scathing. In this book he surveys many ideas and thoughts on life's origins. Nearly all are lacking some facet or poorly conceived in his view. His ire is fiercely aroused over laboratory attempts to duplicate life's beginnings. Our understanding of prebiotic conditions is clearly too limited. He insisted the answer lies in Nature's processes. We don't know enough to duplicate them. Since our laboratory research has failed, he argues, we must seek answers elsewhere - off our home world.

As he develops his theme, Shapiro spares no effort in deriding what he deems inadequate. The prominence of any figure or idea simply crumbles under his penetrating gaze. If the work meet his qualification of "extraordinary proof", he demolishes it with scornful imagery. His critiques have led his colleagues to deem him "Dr No" - an appellation he relishes.

Nor does he fail to adapt any mechanism to further his position. He even enlists biblical allegory - albeit rather twisted in his hand. Knowing the biblical myth of a "creation week" is outdated, he simply changes the metaphor. He crams the 12 billion year history of the Cosmos into a seven day framework. In this structure he also places two "schools" of ideas about life - the Christian Fundamentalists and the followers of the Anthropic Principle. The former relies on one of the multitude of "Bibles". The latter accepts scientific observations of Nature, but deems the whole Cosmos is in place just for humanity. Countering this unusual mix is Shapiro's "Sour Lemon School" which sees life's origins as a fluke.
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Format: Hardcover
Reading Planetary Dreams: The Quest to Discover Life Beyond Earth was an exquisite pleasure for me. I couldn't skip forward to the chapters on solar system exploration because I wanted to enjoy every last single word. I have always believed that it was possible to express important scientific ideas so they could be easily understood, but Bob Shapiro has shown how really well it can be done. The different technical areas involved in exploring the planets for life are well explained for the non-specialist. Professor Shapiro has reviewed all the pertinent scientific areas, astronomy, chemistry, biology, computational complexity, and more. And he includes the ideas of an amazing number of authors - Aristotle and Asimov, Bradbury and von Braun, Clarke and Copernicus, Dante and Darwin, and on and on.
My initial interest in the book Planetary Dreams was professional. I work at NASA and am involved in Astrobiology, the search for life in the universe. Dr. Robert Shapiro is well known in this area because of his work on understanding the origins of life and developing methods to search for nonterrestrial life. Exotic life in our solar system may not be based on carbon or use water as a solvent.
By reading Planetary Dreams, I have gained a better, firmer, clearer, wider understanding of the scientific world view. I can easily imagine a reader having his or her life changed by reading this book. I was so interested in Planetary Dreams that I postponed seeing the new Star Wars movie until after I finished the book. And Planetary Dreams is better entertainment and much better philosophy than the movie, and it indicates a worthy future quest for the human race. I loved every word. Everyone interested in life and the universe should read this book.
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