(2010) Dirk Schulze-Makuch & David Darling, One World, trd pbk, £9.99 / US$19.95, pp xix + 304, ISBN 978-1-851-68719-0
The preliminary exploration of solar system gas giant planets in the past three decades, not to mention the discovery of numerous extra solar planets in the past decade, have both boosted the science of exobiology, or 'astrobiology' as those wishing to sex up the discipline now call it. The hunt is on to unambiguously detect extraterrestrial life. So, in recent decades there has even been a proliferation of academic papers and even a new journal or two. For the scientist who is also an SF enthusiast this is territory ripe for checking out. Indeed many of us no doubt have dipped a toe into these particular waters, and even if you are not a scientist yourself let me save you the hassle of exploring your local university library with your tame scientist friend and tell you straight away there is a lot of dross in recent academic literature: it seems there are too many scientists chasing too little data.
OK. So that is the bad news. There is though good news. We are exploring the nearby gas giants' moons and doing really well on the Martian front too. The bottom line is that we have found environments that do appear that they might be able to support life albeit theoretically and albeit microbial. Furthermore, there are signs that at least one of these theoretical possibilities might reflect the reality of life's presence! This bottom line is the story that 'astrobiologist' Schulze-Makuch and science writer David Darling recount.
The authors make a fair fist of the tale even though they do it in under a couple of hundred pages plus over a score of black & white illustrations. The book is largely divided into two parts. The first looks at the theories and attempts to detect life on Mars, and the second life throughout the Universe and beyond. There is much ground to cover and so we whiz through Lowell, Urey-Miller and then the Mariner probes before reaching the Viking landers, where the authors begin to spend some time both on this as well as subsequent landers and meteorite ALH84001. Then it is on to part two where the emphasis is on Titan and Europa, but the atmosphere of Venus gets an interesting airing too. ('Atmosphere', 'airing': look I do do quite a bit to keep these reviews subliminally entertaining…)
Of course. as many of you Concatenation visitors are scientists with an interest in SF (indeed some of you may be vice-versa) you will want to know what the authors conclude as that colours their text up to the final pages. In brief they feel that we have detected environments capable of handling what we biologists call extremophiles: life forms that can cope with what we humans would call extreme environmental conditions be it of low oxygen, and / or low pH and/or high / low temperatures. Of course such life forms are invariably microbial, indeed prokaryotic (bacteria and simple algae), but life nonetheless.
Now, those of you who know me you are aware that I have had a longstanding interest in exobiology and have been quietly amassing what I consider to be relevant academic papers from mainstream science for some decades now. My approach comes from my work on biosphere science and the way the Earth functions with life, and so hopefully I do have something to meaningful contribute as to Earth-like planets and the possibilities of life elsewhere. I am therefore very aware of the science the authors recount even if their academic reading (from the reference list appended) seems to largely come from journals such as Astrobiology, Space Science Reviews and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Conversely my own reading tends to be more Nature, Science and the Royal Society Transactions (B) as well as the journals of the learned societies to which I belong. So were I do write an exobiology book it would be a very different creature. Yet despite my alternate perspective – looking from the outside of 'astrobiology' in – I am largely in agreement with nearly all the authors' conclusions. Some of the gas giants' moons do seem to offer environments worthy of investigating for life. Seasonal methane on Mars is also tantalising in that life actually seems to be the most likely of the various competing explanatory theories. However the authors' suggestion that a layer in Venus' atmosphere may also harbour life I do feel is a bit of a long shot but it is not totally ludicrous and unworthy – if you are that way inclined – of inclusion as something of interest. But it may be that they have over-egged the ALH84001 case even if the panspermiology implications are tantalising. Nonetheless, the book's conclusions are mostly very sober which itself is saying something given there is both so much over-enthusiastic scientists on one hand, and the mass of what is little more than UFOlogy animal detritus on the other, on a number of bookshops' shelves. So this book's sobriety is also all the more welcome when you consider that if we were to get undeniable evidence of microbial extraterrestrial life on Mars or another moon in our Solar system then it would be instantaneous global headline news and undoubtedly followed by much spin and hype.
Having said al that, were I to write this book I would not have left out the Drake equation. That simple equation has lined up the dimensions to be explored more or less in the order in which they can be investigated. Indeed, it is possible to chart the history of the search for ET using this equation and the further along we go narrowing its variable so the options for the outcomes do begin to become narrower. Those of you who have heard my exobiology talks at UK university biology societies or the European SF Eurocons are aware of my own view that life is very common in the Galaxy's spiral arms away from its core, but that the probability of extant technology-based intelligence is comparatively far more rare (diasporic colonization notwithstanding). Nor would I have left out the relevance of Planck, photosynthesis, eukayrotic life and Lovelock. But, in fairness to the authors, these dimensions do not so much provide the evidence for our having unwittingly, or unconfirmedly (is there such a word?), detected extraterrestrial life which is the strict subject of this book, even though they are crucial to on-going investigations to life elsewhere especially non-microbial life: proper plants, big trees, and cuddly (and no so cuddly) animals on other worlds. In short, as far as the authors go they have neatly encapsulated an important aspect of the quest to ascertain whether Earth life forms are the only ones or not in the Galaxy.
The authors' writing style is lucid: at the easier end of the New Scientist level. Many hard SF buffs into non-fiction will find it a most interesting read. Mundane SF writers who are not scientists will find it is a handy treasure trove. Scientists (not exobiologists or even astrobiologists) into SF will undoubtedly find themselves wanting more, though if they really want to go to town then the reference list at the back is excellent and, with abstracts on-line these days, very worthwhile a browse. So I can see a number of different types of reader being interested in this book. Recommended.
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