Non-Fiction Reviews

A Brief Introduction (2nd edition)

(2012 2nd edition) Kevin W. Plaxco & Michael Gross, John Hopkins University Press,
pbk, ??? / US$????, xi +330pp, ISBN 978-1-421-400969-9


Recent years have seen an explosion in the discovery of exoplanets (planets beyond the Solar System). We have found giant rocky planets (super Earths), large gas giants around small stars and even planets orbiting binary stars, with some astronomical research projects quickly discovering scores of planets. Indeed it has been estimated that there are a billion habitable Earth's and tens of billions of super Earths! So not surprising there is much interest and speculation as to life elsewhere e in the Universe than on Earth. Indeed many astronomy and astrophysics courses now have modules on astrobiology that can also be taken as free choice options by those studying related science. (Back in my day, my college's free choice modules on the Fundamentals of Astronomy and Stellar Astronomy & Astrophysics contained nothing on astrobiology, though we did do the theory of exoplanet detection, which was something given none had been detected back then.)

With Astrobiology: A Brief Introduction, Kevin W. Plaxco & Michael Gross have provided quite a comprehensive introduction to a significant body of science that underpins, as well as the science that directly relates to, astrobiology.

The first chapter is (what my fellow biologists might call) bravely titled 'What is life?' Though they commendably quote a judge on his definition of pornography who says he knows it when he sees it. From then on in further chapters the authors look at: the origins of a habitable universe; the primordial soup (the Miller-Urey experiment etc); basic biochemistry and cellular biology; a concise history of the Earth (and they do mean concise); extremophiles (such as bacteria living in hot springs); looking for life in the Solar System (Mars, Titan and so forth); and looking for life beyond in the Galaxy.

Though the topic of astrobiology is popular with many outside of academia, this text is really most relevant to those who have already done science at school and who are doing science at university that has a module in astrobiology (or in which astrobiology is a free choice minor). Of greater relevance to this site's regulars, it would also be of interest to the science graduate into hard SF and space opera. True such SF-loving scientists (and there are many of us) are probably aware of the astrobiological basics Plaxco and Gross present, but the authors do more than this: they have compiled a neat package of both relevant historic together with a whistle stop tour of the plethora of the past couple of decades' recent research that illuminates this topic. Indeed looking at my bookshelf, astrobiology has come a long way from, say, the likes of Horrowitz's Utopia and Back (1986) or Horneck and Baumstark-Khan's Astrobiology: The quest for the conditions of life (2001). So books like Plaxco and Gross' Astrobiology do fill a genuine need.

At this point it should be noted that this is the book's second edition; the first came out in 2006. This means that the authors have been able to ensure that the key outputs of half a decades of intervening research are included.

Science writer Michael Gross has presumably been the one who brought a very readable style to what could have been a dry text given the level to which this book is aimed. Science writers do not just write popular science but few venture into university level textbooks, even introductory ones, and it is good to see accessible introductory texts that speaks across a number of disciplines. Conversely Kevin Plaxco presumably drove the science content. Here he has taken a very much chemistry and molecular biology approach to astrobiology, though there is some sound astronomy in there too. This approach is not surprising as astrobiology in these early decades of the discipline seems to be led by astrophysicists and chemists: we biologists, let alone biosphere (Earth system) scientists, have yet to get a look in as if biology isn't a real science but we are coming as biologists in Earth system science are now impacting on climate change science and we have astrobiology in our sights (cf. Lenton and Watson's Revolutions that made the Earth). However I digress, exoplanet hunting aside, biochemistry, molecular biology and microbiology is currently where it is at in astrobiology and it is only right and proper that a current (2012/3) introduction to the subject takes this approach too. And I have to say the authors do it well: I particularly liked their presenting a good case as to why life in the Universe is very much in the main likely to be carbon-based.

The book is illustrated with line diagrams and some b&w photos. While these might have benefited being printed on gloss art paper, the quality serves the purpose of study well enough and the last thing a student needs is a more expensive textbook. The book also has a useful subject index, though is very light on academic references, but this too is fine for a basic, introductory text. Students embarking on astrobiological studies, and SF enthusiasts wishing to go a little beyond the popular science, will find this a very worthwhile book.

Jonathan Cowie

A different version of this review has appeared in Biologist magazine.

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