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. Recommended By Jeremy G., Powells.com
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. Sasselov tells the gripping story of a moment of unprecedented potential—a convergence of pioneering efforts in astronomy and biology to peer into the unknown. The Life of Super-Earths offers nothing short of a transformation in our understanding of life and its place in the cosmos.
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Short, cogent and stimulating”
Andrew H. Knoll, Fisher Professor of Natural History, Harvard University, and author of Life on a Young Planet
In engaging prose, Dimitar Sasselov explains how remarkable breakthroughs in astronomy are reframing one of humankinds oldest questionsare we alone in the universe? The Life of Super-Earths provides nutrition for the lively mind.”
Hans Ulrich Obrist, Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes, Serpentine Gallery
Dimitar Sasselov once told me that biology is the future of astronomy, a statement which amazed and intrigued me. In this new brilliant book he explains why his expanded notion of astronomy includes biology, and geology and chemistry, in its exciting search for new planets, new worlds, and new life. Sasselov is one of the great public intellectuals of the 21st century. He inspires artists, architects, philosophers and many others. It is urgent to read Sasselov.”
In this short, sharp look at the [extrasolar planet] subset called super-Earths rocky or oceanic, but more massive than Earthastronomer Dimitar Sasselov gives us the science and the speculation about life on other worlds.”
[W]hat is life and how did it come about? Astrophysicist Dimitar Sasselov argues that we are on the brink of being able to answer this question, and his enthusiasm is infectious.... Only by knowing what is possible, says Sasselov in this inspirational book, can we ever understand how life got going on Earth and why it has the characteristics it has.”
In his new book, Harvard astronomy professor Dimitar Sasselov lays out an optimistic case for extraterrestrial life and explains why super-Earthsrocky planets that are more massive and larger than Earthmay be better equipped to harbor the stuff of life.”
The Daily Galaxy
[A] brilliant new study.”
In this slim but absorbing introduction to the epic search for life on extrasolar planets, Sasselov explores how astronomy, geology, and biology are conspiring to give us a radical new vision of a universe in which our living Earth is just another planet.”
As the codiscoverer of several extrasolar planets, Sasselov provides an insiders view on planet hunting.... An interesting read.”
Sasselov takes readers firsthand through the recent exciting discoveries of large Earth-like planets. Enough super-Earths have been discovered to enable the study of their relationship to the origins of life itself.... The well-constructed logic in this book provides plenty of support for the more interesting view that the universe is in the early phases of the evolution of carbon-rich star systems that will continue to generate life on other planets.... [A] masterfully clear statement about the possibility of life on exoplanets.”
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 lakeboth 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
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.