- Paperback: 338 pages
- Publisher: Copernicus (December 10, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0387952896
- ISBN-13: 978-0387952895
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 179 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #59,628 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe
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"Do you feel lucky? Well do ya?" asked Dirty Harry. Paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee think all of us should feel lucky. Their rare Earth hypothesis predicts that while simple, microbial life will be very widespread in the universe, complex animal or plant life will be extremely rare. Ward and Brownlee admit that "It is very difficult to do statistics with an N of 1. But in our defense, we have staked out a position rarely articulated but increasingly accepted by many astrobiologists."
Their new science
is the field of biology ratcheted up to encompass not just life on Earth but also life beyond Earth. It forces us to reconsider the life of our planet as but a single example of how life might work, rather than as the only example.
The revolution in astrobiology during the 1990s was twofold. First, scientists grew to appreciate how incredibly robust microbial life can be, found in the superheated water of deep-sea vents, pools of acid, or even within the crust of the Earth itself. The chance of finding such simple life on other bodies in our solar system has never seemed more realistic. But second, scientists have begun to appreciate how many unusual factors have cooperated to make Earth a congenial home for animal life: Jupiter's stable orbit, the presence of the Moon, plate tectonics, just the right amount of water, the right position in the right sort of galaxy. Ward and Brownlee make a convincing if depressing case for their hypothesis, undermining the principle of mediocrity (or, "Earth isn't all that special") that has ruled astronomy since Copernicus. --Mary Ellen Curtin
From Library Journal
Renowned paleontologist Ward (Univ. of Washington), who has authored numerous books and articles, and Brownlee, a noted astronomer who has also researched extraterrestrial materials, combine their interests, research, and collaborative thoughts to present a startling new hypothesis: bacterial life forms may be in many galaxies, but complex life forms, like those that have evolved on Earth, are rare in the universe. Ward and Brownlee attribute Earth's evolutionary achievements to the following critical factors: our optimal distance from the sun, the positive effects of the moon's gravity on our climate, plate tectonics and continental drift, the right types of metals and elements, ample liquid water, maintainance of the correct amount of internal heat to keep surface temperatures within a habitable range, and a gaseous planet the size of Jupiter to shield Earth from catastrophic meteoric bombardment. Arguing that complex life is a rare event in the universe, this compelling book magnifies the significanceAand tragedyAof species extinction. Highly recommended for all public and academic libraries.AGloria Maxwell, Penn Valley Community Coll. Lib., Kansas City
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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It should be noted, however, that the authors suggest that microbial life may indeed pervade the universe; their pessimism is confined to more complex life (they call it "animal life") that may require billions of years to evolve. They suggest that the extreme resiliance of micro-organisms in some of earth's most hostile environments, e.g., we've found microbes in Yellowstone hot springs, Anarctica, and in deep ocean vents utilizing hydrogen and sulfur, indicate that this form of simple life may indeed be found in various cosmic environments.
This book was published in 2003 and subsequent discoveries in our own solar system have been described as "expanding the habitable zone for life" rendering, perhaps, this book's assessment of life's chances unduly pessimistic. Over the last decade missions to Jupiter and Saturn have discovered exciting possibilities on two of Jupiter's moons (Io and Europa) and two of Saturn's moons (Enceladus and Titan). While the sun may be distant and these moons quite cold on the surface, tidal forces from the immense gravity of their nearby planets generate heat in the interior. Europa is suspected of having a large amount of liquid water underneath its surface. Titan has the only surface ocean in the solar system (other than Earth) albeit one of liquid methane (liquid at -300 degrees F). The most intriguing possibility is Saturn's moon, Enceladus. The Cassini mission flyby discovered that Enceladus has geysers of liquid water spewing into space that also contain salt and organic molecules. Nonetheless, with all the enthusiasm for finding life in the universe, this book is a welcome counterpoint.
The authors make a case. They show that our Solar System is particularly well-positioned in its orbit within the Galaxy for life, as our star is largely on the outer periphery of the Galaxy where it is spared the lethal effects of novas and other cosmic catastrophes that are more common nearer the core of the Galaxy. Further, the authors note that our own Solar System is uncommon in that the gas giant planets are confined to the outer reaches of the System, where they do not interfere much with the orbits of the inner planets, i.e. Earth, and in fact act as meteor shields, reducing the number of catastrophic meteor strikes which can, and have, caused most complex species to become extinct.
The authors also note that even throughout most of Earth's history life was single-celled and species were few, until the Cambrian Explosion of speciation. This event, in order to take place, required numerous fortunate circumstances all to occur, and the authors make a case that such a fortunate confluence of conditions cannot be common in the universe. They may be right.
Or they may not. The problem, of course, is that we are really dealing with a sample of one -- at this juncture we have discovered life nowhere but on our own planet, and our ability to explore the conditions that exist on planets outside our own Solar System (or even inside it) is greatly limited. What makes this book worth reading is the importance of its topic, for surely there can be no more profound question than "Are We Alone?..."
Some of the science in this book becomes a little hard to follow for non-scientists, but mostly the authors present their case with clarity, and certainly even the layman can follow the main threads of the authors' arguments throughout the piece. This is a fascinating and important work that should appeal to many. RJB.
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