Book Review: Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars – by Lee Billings

Five Billion YearsFive Billion Years of Solitude really means 4.6 billion years of solitude, because that’s how old the Earth is, and it is the only planet in the universe that we know for sure has life. Our planet has spent 4.6 billion years in solitude.

This book is about all aspects of humanity’s search for life in the universe. It’s a technical book told by Billings like a thriller. I love scientific subjects, and speculation about extraterrestrial life and exoplanets has always fascinated me.

Billings tells about the gyrations of NASA when trying to squeeze as much of its various projects out of limited dollars, the fickle behavior of short-lived congress that supplies the funds, and the lack of vision of most of our presidents, save John F. Kennedy.

He also tells the personal stories of the major players, the superstars of this burgeoning new scientific field, introducing a new key character almost every chapter. This gives a sometimes dry and scientific story a human touch that draws the reader in.

However, the reader must be interested in science, astronomy, and astrobiology, at least, to be able to work through this book. For me, it was perfect.

Here is an excerpt from early in the book, in chapter 2, pages 29-30:

Fueled by raw sunlight, plants broke the chemical bonds of water and carbon dioxide, spinning together sugars and other hydrocarbons from the hydrogen and carbon and venting oxygen into the air. Sunlight scattering off all those airborne oxygen molecules made the sky appear blue. Animals breathed the oxygen and nourished their bodies with the hydrocarbons, utterly dependent upon these photosynthetic gifts from the plants. In death, plants and animals alike gave their Sun-spun carbon back to the Earth, where tremendous heat, pressure, and time transformed it into coal, oil, and natural gas. Mechanically extracted from the planet’s crust and burned in engines, generators, and furnaces, that fossilized energy powered most of humanity’s technological dominion over the globe. Built up and locked away for hundreds of millions of years, the carbon stockpile was gushing back into the planet’s atmosphere in a geological instant.

Five Billion Years of Solitude is a completely up to date (2013) study of the search for extraterrestrial life and all that this pertains, from mundane things like budgets for space telescopes, to human stories of the people involved and the competition of the planet finders, to the hard science of how one finds a planet around a star dozens of light years away where the star outshines the planet by a billion to one.

An eminently readable book I would recommend to anyone with an interest in science.

Rating: ***

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