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The Life of Super-Earths: How the Hunt for Alien Worlds and Artificial Cells Will Revolutionize Life on Our Planetby Dimitar Sasselov
A brief, yet informative primer on the search for exoplanets, The Life of Super-Earths outlines the accelerating quest to discover potentially habitable planets outside of our solar system. Dimitar Sasselov, a Harvard astronomy professor, offers the intriguing back story of the scientific developments that have led to the discovery of over 600 extrasolar planets. Sasselov goes into considerable detail in conveying the methods utilized to determine whether a particular star does, in fact, have orbiting planets (including astrometry, the Doppler effect, gravitational lensing, spectroscopy, and the detection of transiting planets). He writes about the formations of super-earths, presumptive requirements for life thereon, and the myriad reasons why some planets may well be more conducive and supportive of life than our own.
While the entire book is rather fascinating, the sparse portions dealing with Perovskite (a mineral found within the Earth's mantle which composes some 40 percent of our planet's mass), high-pressure ices (VII, X, and XI) that can exist at 1,000 degrees Kelvin, and the future of synthetic biology are of particular note. Of the 200 billion stars in just our own galaxy, there are an estimated 100 million orbiting planets with habitable potential — making the prospects for life outside of our solar system quite intriguing. Considering that "there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand in all the beaches on earth" truly boggles one's mind and makes the possibility of there being life on any number of exoplanets seem a mere as-yet unproven certainty. The Life of Super-Earths is an eminently readable work, easily accessible to even those with but the faintest scientific education. Sasselov does a remarkable job of balancing some of the more heady scholarship with coherent prose and lucid illustrations. Sasselov's enthusiasm for his field is rather evident and helps compel the reader to a more fully realized comprehension of a truly exhilarating subject.
Synopses & Reviews
In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus fomented a revolution when he debunked the geocentric view of the universe, proving instead that our planet wasn’t central to the universe. Almost five hundred years later, the revolution he set in motion is nearly complete. Just as earth is not the center of things, the life on it, it appears, is not unique to the planet. Or is it?
The Life of Super-Earths is a breathtaking tour of current efforts to answer the age-old question: Are we alone in the universe? Astronomer Dimitar Sasselov, the founding director of Harvard University’s Origins of Life Initiative, takes us on a fast-paced hunt for habitable planets and alien life forms. He shows how the search for “super-Earths”—rocky planets like our own that orbit other stars—may provide the key to answering essential questions about the origins of life here and elsewhere. That is, if we don’t find the answers to those questions here first. As Sasselov and other astronomers have uncovered planets with mixes of elements different from our own, chemists have begun working out the heretofore unseen biochemistries that those planets could support. That knowledge is feeding directly into synthetic biology—the effort to build wholly novel forms of life—making it likely that we will first discover truly “alien” life forms in an earthly lab, rather than on a remote planet thousands of light years away.
Book News Annotation:
Intended for general readers, this volume on the history and possibilities of astronomical and biochemical research examines the study of super-earths, distant planets similar to earth that allow scientists to study how earth may have been millennia ago. Sasselov (astronomy, Harvard U.) explores the implications of these discoveries for biological research in chapters which discuss both the study of extraterrestrial bodies and the search for the origins of life on earth. The book is written in an accessible popular science style and presents complex topics in an entertaining and engaging manner. Sasselov is the founder of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative. Annotation ©2012 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
In the past year, we have witnessed unprecedented breakthroughs in the seemingly unrelated fields of synthetic biology and exoplanetary astronomy. Just recently, arsenic-based bacteria was discovered in a California lake—both puzzling and electrifying the scientific world. In The Life of Super-Earths, expert astronomer Dimitar Sasselov aims to highlight these groundbreaking findings and explain how what we learn in the laboratory informs our investigation of the universe, and vice versa.
The discovery of a New Earth, or other world, may be in our future. But a truly alien” life form is more likely to emerge from our planets natural environment or in a petri dish at a research lab. We may cross a milestone into the era of synthetic biology under the microscope. These breakthroughs will shed new light on our place in the universe and answer the age-old question: Are we alone in the universe?
The Life of Super-Earths offers nothing short of a revolution in our understanding of life and its place in the cosmos.
About the Author
Dimitar Sasselov is a Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and the Founder and Director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative. His research has been covered by the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and others. He lives in Auburndale, Massachusetts.
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