Non-Fiction Reviews


Frontiers of Astrobiology

(2012) Chris Impey, Jonathan Lunine and Jose Funes (eds.), Cambridge University Press,
pbk, 30 / US$50, xiv +130pp, ISBN 978-1-107-00641-6

 

This is a very sound overview review of where the edge of astrobiological research lies. The principal areas include: the origins of life on Earth; evolution of life (though albeit light on co-evolution of life and planet); possible Solar system habitats for simple life; exoplanets; and SETI. What it is not is an introduction to the topic of astrobiology. This is fair enough as we need to know where we are just as much as we do the journey that took us there.

This book is in effect a quasi symposium proceedings. The chapters therein are not based on a conventional symposium but a meeting reviewing astrobiology-related science organised by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Now if you are not aware of it, this academy is the science wing of the Vatican and over the years they have brought together experts from a range of disciplines covering a wide range of topics, and this book relates to one such gathering. This event was longer than most symposia, lasting as it did for a week and indeed it was billed as a 'study week'. During this time an international gathering of scientists gave presentations reviewing their respective areas of work in addition to considerable time devoted to discussing these. Such exercises are most valuable as in science (not to mention other areas of human endeavour) there is a tendency for expert knowledge to develop and be confined to specialist silos.) The papers this book's editors present have specifically been written so that they are accessible to experts outside of the specific disciplines to which they relate. (We need more of such silo-busting writing.) As such this volume will have a broader appeal than, say, the proceedings of a Royal Society discussion meeting: meetings that themselves are designed to review the latest research regarding a particular topic. Nonetheless, this book is not for the casual reader, as the editors also aspire, given that in some chapters specialist terms are not explained so requiring some graduate science. (For example, do you know what a carbon excursion is, or PAL means?) Consequently perhaps only potential readers armed with either a life science or a geoscience degree will get the most benefit from what is a most useful snapshot of where astrobiology science currently stands. Having said that, despite the complexities, the style of English is not one of extreme academic dryness. And so as there are a number of SF enthusiasts with science qualifications who even if they are not currently active in science will still be able to enjoy this work.

The book's production is very good with amply b&w line illustrations as well as photos, together with a central section of colour illustrations. There are solid lists of references at the end of each chapter and a subject index at the book's end.

Astrobiology is clearly a fast developing topic, in part currently driven by the twin fronts of solar system exploration and the astronomical hunt for exoplanets. For those (with science qualifications) seeking a grounding in where we are currently (2nd decade of the 21st century) at then I would not hesitate to recommend just three books of which Frontiers of Astrobiology is one, and the other two being Astrobiology:A Brief Introduction and the very important Revolutions that made the Earth.

Jonathan Cowie


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