The stars – and the universe they inhabit – have been an important part of festive celebrations throughout history, which makes this book the perfect choice for the end of year holidays. Author Lee Billings talks to leading scientists about the real possibility of life on other planets.
You may think a book that takes on the science of “astrobiology” sounds like a bit of heavy subject to tackle while relaxing on a sun lounger at your private villa in Thailand or Bali. On the contrary, in “Five Billion Years of Solitude”, Lee Billings works very hard make the information he presents not only accessible, but entertaining.
Using an easy, conversational style, with much of the book based on interviews with some of the most respected scientists in the field, Billings tackles the complicated but fascinating question of how life originally developed on earth. He then applies this knowledge to consider if the same process could occur elsewhere in our solar system – or more likely, beyond it.
To help him fit together the pieces that make up such a huge jigsaw of evolutionary probability, Billings calls on the likes of Frank Drake, who conducted the first modern Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) experiment as long ago as 1960. Drake still participates in the search for optical signals of an intelligent origin from space today, using a 40-inch Nickel telescope at the Lick Observatory and equipment at the University of California at Berkeley.
Another expert that features prominently in the book, one known for shining a light on the distant universe, is Sara Seager. The Canadian-American planetary scientist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T) is well known for her work on extrasolar planets and their atmospheres. In fact, Seager has been called "an astronomical Indiana Jones” and she has also developed a modified version of the equation used by Drake to estimate the number of habitable planets in the galaxy.
Such theories and formulae might seem highly theoretical to most people, but thanks to major advances in technology such as the invention and application of the Hubble space telescope, it may not be long before contact is made with a civilisation in a parallel universe.
Deep field photography has already revealed some 10,000 galaxies out there, each containing literally billions of stars. New developments in telescopic capability have already helped astronomers map clouds on a planet some 1,000 light years away and scientists can now effectively look back in time at galaxies millions of light years from Earth.
Perhaps even more importantly, research into the conditions required for life to exist on other planets also provides us with valuable information as to just how resilient our own planet and civilisation is. Five Billion Years of Solitude definitely instills a heathy appreciation for the miraculous combination of elements that makes life on Earth, and perhaps elsewhere in the universe, possible.
When asked about the book in an interview with Universe Today, the writer summarised its importance in a single sentence. “It’s about finding signs of life, finding a sense of context for ourselves in the wider universe, figuring out where Earth and all life upon it fits in this greater picture,” he said.
That’s not a bad set of questions to contemplate when you look up from your kindle to gaze on clear skies reflected a calm tropical ocean.
by Wayne Hue