Non-Fiction Reviews

A Very Short Introduction

(2013) David G. Catling , Oxford University Press, £7.99 / US$11.95, pbk, xiv +142pp, ISBN 978-0-199-58645-5


Astrobiology is enjoying being in a bit of a vogue at the moment what with the seeming explosion of exoplanets – planets in orbit around stars other than our Sun (Sol) – not to mention possible near-Earth-like planets and even recently (2013) one star that seems to be surrounded by super-Earths. Given this, the tantalising question is whether any such worlds could harbour life? Indeed might simple life (bacteria) be present on another body than Earth within the Solar system?

Such questions are popular but surely they must inevitably be asked by scientists who enjoy science fiction: the principal audience for this Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation website.

Now, yes, there are a number of good books on astrobiology and we have reviewed a few of them before. I'm sure a number of Concat's science regulars will already have a few on their bookshelves and so may wonder why they may want to consider getting David Catling's mini-offering? Well each astrobiology book tends to bring something new to the table and David Catling is no exception. For me one thing that had passed me that David Catling alerted me to is that there is a possibility that Ceres may have a subsurface ocean and if so it might harbour life. There were others and I am sure that most of this site's regulars will find something. The book's end also includes an interesting reference list with most being published within the last decade and, indeed, the most being published in the past three years. This in itself is a useful; heads up. Because the book is cheap it will not break one's purse to get it, and because it is short it will not consume much time reading it.

David Caitling covers the ground you would expect including: what is life? (Of which he makes a fair fist.); biosphere evolution; stars and the galaxy, the Drake equation (disappointingly low in my opinion but that's my psychological predilections talking); the Fermi paradox; life in the Solar system; non-carbon based life; and so forth. It is all good stuff.

If you have not come across the Oxford University Press series '…A Very Short Introduction' (we have before reviewed a few on this site) then they are exactly what they say they are: very short introductions typically over 100 pages but less than 150 pages long written by experts in their respective fields.  They are, if you like, the book equivalent of tweeting a topic but, obviously, longer than a tweet's number of characters and better than Wikipedia. They provide their readers with a quick grounding in the very basics of a topic, and that in itself is quite a neat trick.

Of course it would be easy for me to highlight what he left out, but that would be stupid because this book's raison d'être is that it is short and so ipso facto not everything can be included. Suffice to say that David Caitling has doe a fine job of packing up a neat little concentrate for readers.

SF enthusiasts who are not scientists are also often intrigued by the concept of alien life, what with it being a genre trope and all. This book is very easy to read and technical terms kept to a minimum and always explained. And so the carbonate-silicate cycle is mentioned it is explained very simply without the use of equations: there is no need for scientists will either already know and even if they are, say, physicists with no inherent understanding of basic biosphere science, they can easily find out. Again for the non-scientist who is intrigued by the topic will find this book's small size aids its digestion. In short, this title has much going for it.

Jonathan Cowie

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