Non-Fiction Review

Astrobiology: The quest for the conditions of life

(2001) Gerda Horneck & Christa Baumstark-Khan (eds), Springer, 5.99, hdbk, pp411, ISBN 3 540 420101 7

Astrobiology is a mid-university level and above text book - non-scientists beware! On the other hand for scientists this text could be a bit of a treat.

The really BIG questions in science absolutely fascinate me and as far as I am concerned it would seem a waste of considerable training and a professional life in the life sciences not be able to turn one's skills to those questions that one personally finds fascinating. One of the BIG questions that has held my attention for the past couple of decades is the question of whether their is life other than on Earth and what are the scientific laws governing life everywhere: indeed (as Eurocon regulars will know) two of my party-piece talks relate to the overlap between biology and astronomy. Having said that, outside of a handful of scientific papers each year in some very specialised journals, serious attempts to get a scientific handle on these questions are few and far between despite a considerable body of popular work of, it must be said, highly variable quality. Against this background as a scientist it is a real pleasure to come across a volume like Astrobiology.

Now, if as a scientist you are only vaguely familiar with this specialist area, do not be put off by the title. The term 'astrobiology' is the current fad term those working in the area call what has long been known (and indeed the dictionary cites) as 'exobiology'. It is not to be confused with 'bioastronomy' a very small, but equally fascinating, specialist area of doing astronomy with biology.

With Astrobiology the editors have done a good job in compiling papers covering many of the key aspects currently being addressed by exobiologists. Though they were assisted by the 1st symposium on 'Exo/Astrobiology' that took place in Germany in 2000. Consequently they had much of the leg work in identifying and meeting contributing authors and the central topics for them. The ground covered includes: organic molecules in interstellar clouds; extra solar planets; habitable zones; interplanetary transport of micro organisms; water as life's solvent; Martian geomorphology; Europa; a fascinating chapter on permafrost as a habitat; chapters on life at extremes; chapters on radiation life and biomolecules; an interesting, but I don't believe to be very relevant, chapters on gravity and life; some chapters on the emergence and complexity of life; and a final chapter on forthcoming astrobiology space missions.

The ground covered is breath-taking. However given the standard of most of the contributions I was surprised to find some gaps in the coverage of some topics (such as the Titius-Bode law and the origins of molecular chirality), while other topics such as defining an Earth-like planet almost missing completely. Nonetheless the book is a useful contribution to the literature and in that the editors can rest assured. As for its downside: it is a shame that the book is written specifically for specialists: it would not have hurt to have asked the authors to adopt a more reader-friendly style. Scientists not familiar with the territory will find it a very dry read whereas non-scientists will find it impenetrable. I suspect that this is because exobiologists are self-conscious that their specialism may not be respected by some (especially research funders?) and so dress the topic up with unnecessary complication and academe-speak. This is a great shame as along with areas such as genomics and Earth systems science, exobiology is one of the currently exciting areas in science where the gathering of data is well ahead of understanding and explanation.

Jonathan Cowie

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