Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life

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9780060185404: Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life

A provocative, anecdotal book about the possibility of extra–terrestrial life by a leading young astronomer and advisor to NASA.

It's been a quarter of a century since Carl Sagan first addressed the general public from the perspective of a practicing scientist confronting the possibility of extraterrestrial life. We've learned a lot in those 25 years, and leading astronomer David Grinspoon is well prepared to carry Sagan's legacy forward to a new generation of readers. In Lonely Planets, Grinspoon explores the big questions with unusual authority, passion and panache: How widespread are life and intelligence in the cosmos? Is life on Earth an accident or in some sense the 'purpose' of this universe? And how can we, working from a sample size of one, even begin to think intelligently about life on distant planets? He gives us new ways of thinking about life and outlines his controversial view that Venus, not Mars, is the best candidate for finding nearby life. Lonely Planets concludes with provocative speculations on human destiny and reveals how the search for ET life unites our spiritual and scientific quests for connection with the cosmos.

Examining scientific data, reviewing historical records and sympathetically analyzing folk beliefs, Grinspoon presents a comprehensive history of ideas about extraterrestrial life and offers provocative new scientific speculations. Rich in personal, often amusing anecdotes, his narrative expertly guides readers through history, science, and prevailing beliefs about life on other planets.

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Review:

In Lonely Planets, astronomer David Grinspoon is buoyantly optimistic about the possibility that we are not alone in the universe. Grinspoon, who serves as principal scientist in the Department of Space Studies at the Southwest Research Institute, lays out a detailed but not boring case for life on other planets, dropping authoritative quotes and goofy footnotes in equal measure. The Grinspoon family hung out with Carl Sagan and other astronomical royalty, giving young David an early appreciation for SETI and the heady astrobiological theorizing of the 1970s. In the 21st century, scientists are still split on the question of extraterrestrial life. Grinspoon believes that a "natural philosophy" approach is the key to furthering our knowledge in this field, since there is precious little evidence with which to apply the scientific method. Instead of looking for the familiar and testable, he writes, we should expect the unexpected.

Expecting to find DNA elsewhere is like expecting a Star Trek universe with humanoid aliens who speak English and insist that we join them for dinner at eight.

Lonely Planets is a substantial book, covering the origins of life on Earth as well as the changes in religious and social thought that have affected astronomers' search for other planets and their theoretical inhabitants. Grinspoon's style is exuberant, even a little cocky, and the result is delightful readability. Lonely Planets lets readers share the dismay of finding out there are probably no Martians and the thrill of wondering if there might be Europans. "I think our galaxy is full of species," writes Grinspoon. "The wise ones are out there waiting for us to join them." --Therese Littleton

About the Author:

David Grinspoon is principal scientist in the Department of Space Studies at the South-west Research Institute, and adjunct professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado. His previous book, Venus Revealed, was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist. An adviser for NASA on space exploration strategy, he lectures widely and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs. His writing has appeared in Astronomy, Nature, Science, Scientific American, Natural History, and The Sciences. He maintains the Funky Science Web site at www.funkyscience.net.

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