Praise for Lonely Planets:
Apollo Astronaut Russell “Rusty” Schweickart says:
In Lonely Planets David Grinspoon has written the best book about the
nature and place of life in the great cosmic scheme of things that I can
imagine. He is solidly grounded scientifically and yet willingly
addresses the big questions that so many scientists avoid. And he does
it with such delightful aplomb and sudden good humor that it is a true
pleasure to read. If you want to know what science is grappling with re
the origins, evolution, and extent of life and how it fits into our
understanding of the universe, read this fascinating book by an
wonderfully articulate insider.
Kirkus Reviews (starred review):
An exuberant, provocative look at the possibility of extraterrestrial life, what it might be like, and what it might mean.
In his opening pages, Grinspoon (Astrophysics and Planetary Science/Univ. of Colorado; Venus Revealed, 1997) lays down the history of scientific interest in life beyond Earth, from the discovery that the planets are worlds like ours to the many theories that those other worlds might be inhabited. The second section summarizes scientific opinion on ET life, especially as seen by the new discipline of astrobiology. Our knowledge about life is confined to specimens from our world, Grinspoon reminds us; discovery of even one organism on another world would dramatically alter our perspective. He points out that the Drake equation, meant to estimate the prevalence of life in the universe, depends heavily on the expected lifetime of advanced civilizations. On the other side of the debate, Fermi’s Paradox states the key problem: if intelligent life is common in the universe, why can’t we detect it? Grinspoon devotes some attention to possible answers, from the worst-case scenario (we are alone in the universe) to the possibility that ETs are already here, secretly making contact with selected humans. The third portion explores the far fringes of the subject, from UFO conspiracy theories and abductions to crop circles and mutilations of farm animals. The author resists the temptation to look down his nose at the true believers, pointing out that organized skepticism often has trouble recognizing truths that don’t conform to the scientific model. He concludes with the suggestion that our civilization could be a mere stepping stone to some higher form of consciousness, and that truly advanced life forms may be immortal. Wisecracks, philosophical musings, and personal anecdotes make his text as lively as it is authoritative.
The best look at this subject since Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Connection (1973).
It’s one thing to write a critical examination of the flawed thinking that has shaped the way science considers the possibility of extraterrestrial life; it’s quite another to write one that actually begins “It was a dark and stormy night…” Such is the arched-brow humor favored by this astrobiologist and NASA adviser, who drops quotes from academic stalwarts like Madonna, R.E.M., and The Onion. Yet, in his low-key, conversational language, Grinspoon asks provocative questions about modern science’s unyielding rigidities; gives an informed, dispassionate consideration of the UFO phenomenon; and suggests that NASA might be a tad too preoccupied with Mars. Definitive proof that life on this planet is intelligent and funny.
San Jose Mercury News
By Lynn Yarris
Hello out there?
With the initial success of NASA’s Spirit rover on Mars and the much ballyhooed space initiative of President Bush, the public eye has turned to the search for life on other worlds. Although no one expects to find that life still exists on the red planet, the Spirit rover and future Mars expeditions will be seeking evidence that once upon a time it did. The ramifications of such a finding will be enormous and should revitalize one of the most compelling and oldest questions in all of science: Are we alone?
The search for extraterrestrial life is the timely subject of ”Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life,” by David Grinspoon. The first popular science book devoted to this topic was ”Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds” by the French philosopher Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle. It was published in 1686. Countless others have followed, but it is generally acknowledged that the bar was set by Carl Sagan in 1973 with the publication of ”The Cosmic Connection.” Anathema though it may be to Sagan fans, and believe me, I’m one of you, that bar has now been surpassed by ”Lonely Planets.”
”If Jerry Seinfeld can do a sitcom about nothing, why can’t I write a book about something we know nothing about?” is how Grinspoon prefaces his narrative. The word ”nothing” sums up everything science actually knows about life on other worlds, Grinspoon says, but in ”Lonely Planets” he tracks the human quest for alien contact through history, science, philosophy and fantasy. The result would have made Sagan, a mentor of Grinspoon’s, quite proud.
Grinspoon is a scientist in the department of space studies at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., and an adjunct professor of astrophysical and planetary science at the University of Colorado. He also serves as an adviser for NASA on space exploration strategy and comparative planetology.
A review of his popular first book, ”Venus Revealed: A New Look Below the Clouds of Our Mysterious Twin Planet,” called him the ”Hunter Thompson of planetary science.” Presumably this was meant to be a compliment. There are no drug-fueled paranoid rants to be found in ”Lonely Planets” (not that there’s anything wrong with that), just keen scholarship, witty observations, and thought-provoking banter from a working scientist who, like Sagan, can really write.
”To me, the study of ET life is as interesting for what it reveals about our own biases and hidden assumptions as for what it reveals about life in the universe,” Grinspoon says. ”We come across many questions that are great fun to contemplate: Could there be a world ruled by intelligent plants? Life on a gas world like Jupiter? Planets that are much better suited for life than Earth? Sure. Why not? Such questions force us to refine our views about intelligence and evolution and push us to define life in a universal sense, even though all we know is life on Earth.”
What sets Grinspoon apart from other scientists who do a good job writing for a lay audience, i.e., Lawrence Krauss and Brian Greene, is the attention he pays to the limitations of science. The question of extraterrestrial life represents a challenge that transcends the scientific method, he argues. Hence the inclusion of the term ”natural philosophy” in his subtitle.
”Lonely Planets” is divided into three sections: History, Science and Beliefs. In the History section, Grinspoon shows just how old and enduring human curiosity about ET life is.
”We’ve been wondering, speculating, fretting, hallucinating, and prognosticating about aliens about as long as anyone can remember,” he says. ”Ever since the lost, distant time when we became self-aware, waking slowly from our ape dreams, pausing on some distant East African savanna to stare down in amazement at our flexible fingers or up at the silent stars, we’ve had the capacity and the inclination to wonder whether there were others like us elsewhere.”
The evolution of E.T.
From the Epicureans of ancient Greece, to de Fontenelle’s ”Plurality of Worlds,” to Percival Lowell’s canal-building Martians, to NASA’s up-close and personal explorations of the planets in our own solar system, we come to see that our ideas as to who those ”others” are and where ”elsewhere” might be have evolved along with our sense of who we are and where here is.
In the Science section, Grinspoon takes an extended look at current scientific thought about ET life and the process by which various conjectures have been raised, debated and either accepted or rejected.
”To assess our universe’s potential to create other life and intelligence, we need a framework for understanding our own arrival on Earth,” he says. ”What is this place and how did we get here? We need to know, so we construct cosmologies. A multitude of fine origin tales suggest themselves, but they can’t all be true. How do we choose? We can test our answers against the nature of nature itself.”
The Science section in ”Lonely Planets” is an outstanding introduction to cosmic evolution, or, as Grinspoon calls it, ”the greatest story ever told.” This story, which continues to unfold and undergo revisions, seeks to connect the respective origins of the universe, the Earth and life on our planet. Grinspoon does a great job of explaining what we know so far, how we know it, and why we have quite a ways to go before the story is complete.
He also examines what he characterizes as the ”long and often uneasy relationship” between astronomy and biology. These two scientific fields, he says, ”must get in bed together” if there is to be real progress in understanding the potential of the universe to create life in other places. Grinspoon is quite bullish on astrobiology and lets us know why.
Beliefs trump Science
As good as the Science section is, however, the Beliefs section of ”Lonely Planets” is where Grinspoon truly shines. Readers are treated to a free-ranging discourse that gleefully dives into issues, such as SETI, UFOs, alien abductions, crop circles, Area 51, that make most space scientists swallow, take a deep breath, and look for the nearest exit. Grinspoon is anything but shy in expressing his own beliefs, and his answers are bound to please some and exasperate many others.
”We are at a curious and frustrating stage of our evolution,” he says. ”We can conceive of a truly intelligent, sustainable, communicating society. But we don’t know if we can become one. So we search the skies for confirmation of a hopeful image of ourselves.”
Are we alone in the universe? That’s probably the most compelling question in all of science. ”Lonely Planets” obviously can’t provide an answer, but for anyone who has ever had his or her own curiosity about the possibilities of ET life, it can provide a wealth of information and entertaining insight. There are a number of noteworthy scientists now vying for the crown of premier science popularizer worn with such distinction by Sagan. With the addition of ”Lonely Planet” to his earlier ”Venus Revealed,” Grinspoon stakes his own strong claim to that crown.
Boulder Daily Camera :
By Clay Evans, Camera Books Editor
November 16, 2003
Grinspoon’s pretty sure there’s alien civilization somewhere, and he has a lot of fun telling us why.
Not many scientists have the reputation of being witty or entertaining, even when their subject matter is rich with possibility. But more and more scientists are allowing their Renaissance sides to emerge and publishing books explaining complex, scientific subjects and debates in lively prose.
David Grinspoon, principal scientist in the Department of Space Studies at Boulder’s Southwest Research Institute and an adjunct professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado, is one of those. His first book, “Venus Revealed” (1997) explored Earth’s erstwhile “twin” (turns out the relationship is much more fraternal — if even that — than identical) in loving detail, making the book as poetic and awestruck as it was informed.
Now Grinspoon steps into the Cosmos-sized shoes of the late Carl Sagan with “Lonely Planets,” the best, most entertaining examination of the possibility of other life in the universe since Sagan’s best work. And he’s got a head start: Grinspoon grew up around Sagan, a family friend.
Like Sagan, he brings a joyous, open, even boisterous enthusiasm — “billions and billions!” — to his writing. If you think a survey of “natural philosophical” history regarding the possibility of alien life might be dry, think again. There’s something here for a wide audience, from scientists to dreamers to fans of UFOs.
You can tell Grinspoon is having fun early on, when he describes the delight he takes in not just hard science, but the “fringe” beliefs and tales of UFO abductions.
“Without really trying I’ve picked up my share of alien paraphernalia: beach towels, glow pops, rolling papers, magnets, a little green dancing statuette, and even a pipe-smoking-alien lawn gnome. … Fortunately, many on all sides of the UFO debates approach the question with a proper dose of humor,” he writes. “But what balance to strike? After all, dammit Jim, I’m a scientist, not a comparative sociologist.”
And with that, he’s off. UFOs, Roswell, cattle mutilations and the like get all the funky press, but for my money, the best part of Grinspoon’s cosmic ride is actually the first two-thirds of the book, in which he walks the reader through the history of the universe, the birth of Earth, how life developed and how humanity has gradually had to face the harsh realities of our nearby fellow planets, all with a cheery confidence in the theory of evolution.
But despite coming up dry so far in our immediate spatial neighborhood (Grinspoon thinks we’re spending too much time perusing Mars), like Sagan, he believes it’s a near mathematical certainty that civilization exists elsewhere in the big, beautiful universe we live in.
It’s fascinating as pure information and made positively delightful by Grinspoon’s willingness to be playful. As a fan of both literature (the fancy-pants kind and science fiction) he peppers the book with pithy quotes from Whitman, the rock band U2, Madonna, Bob Dylan, SF master Theodore Sturgeon and others.
His writing is rife with a kind of uppity humor. He’s like a teenager who’s just decided he wants to be an astrobiologist, thrilled and humbled but still full of attitude.
“Who are we to say that our Earth is such a special place? Like parents certain that their baby is the cutest ever born, of course we think our planet is the chosen one.”
In describing Occam’s Razor, the principle that simple explanations are usually closer to the truth than elaborate theories that require “hidden mechanisms,” he writes, “the razor is a tool we use to cut the crap from theories that seem too contrived to describe the apparent simplicity of nature.”
And: “For my generation, the planets have, one by one, gradually been transformed from unknown arenas for speculation and fiction to places we have visited, photographed, scratched and sniffed.”
I have a feeling that many readers will find the later chapters the most entertaining. That’s where he pores over the science of aliens — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI — and the goofier, X-Files-type UFO conspiracies. It’s no less richly rendered than the early chapters, but I kept wanting him to get back to his planetarium riff.
Even here, however, he offers valuable observations on the phenomena: “The most extreme UFO believers and debunkers are caught in a feedback loop in which each side validates the other’s existence. Overzealous efforts to discredit UFO reports help to reinforce the wide perception of scientific skepticism as intolerant and narrow-minded. Believers accuse debunkers of being in on a conspiracy, which leads to more hysterical debunking, and so on,” he writes.
That’s sensible analysis, and Grinspoon leaves his readers with some equally sensible — even a tad sobering — thoughts on the whole question of alien intelligence.
If he met an ET, he writes, his first question would be, “How did you learn to live with yourselves? How do you survive the transition to being a global, technical species? Do you have a spare manual?”
Oh, man. It makes you wish some benevolent, super-intelligent aliens would come on down and tell us how it’s done. (The Overlords from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 classic, “Childhood’s End,” come to mind.)
“Lonely Planets” is one of the most fun books I’ve ever read on a “science fictional” topic, including all my old science fiction favorites. If you have a stargazing spouse or friend, or a wide-eyed 15-year-old in the house, consider wrapping this one up for the holiday season.
Copyright 2003, The Daily Camera. All Rights Reserved.
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.”
Astronomer and space advocate Grinspoon pulls lots of facts, hypotheses, and beliefs together in this entertaining consideration of the likelihood of encountering extraterrestrial life. Nevertheless, the book is orderly, as well, starting with the astronomical and social history that enabled reasonably learned minds to hypothesize about other worlds and the possibility of life on them, and continuing with what has been learned during the past four decades about the solar system and what lies beyond it. Grinspoon describes the intricate four-centuries-old dance of astronomy and biology, and concludes by discussing where theories have been reached. He seasons the discussion with witty anecdotes, personal experiences (relevant, since he has worked with NASA since he was a student), and reminders of what has been demonstrated and what is still theoretical. Fun to read, Grinspoon comes across like a buddy in a bar, trying out ideas over a beer or few. He deserves a large readership.
12 March 2004
In 1998, following highly publicized reports of extrasolar planets, oceans on Europa, and possible fossilized bacteria in a Martian meteorite, NASA launched its Astrobiology Institute, lending new respectability (and considerable funding) to the very old question of the existence of extraterrestrial life. For much of the preceding few decades–since Mariner 4 returned the first images of a barren and lifeless Mars in 1965–this subject, as a field of scientific inquiry, had been more or less confined to the scientific sub-basements of “exobiology” and radio searches for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Given the current surge in scientific attention to alien life, it is easy to think that recent developments constitute a revolution of sorts. However, our actual knowledge of alien life remains the same as it has been for centuries and can be summarized by a single word: nothing. Nonetheless, in Lonely Planets David Grinspoon provides a masterful synthesis of the history, science, philosophy, and even theological implications of extraterrestrial life.
Lonely Planets is divided into three parts: History, Science, and Belief. The first chapters document that for much of the last several hundred years, astronomical and theological considerations made belief in aliens commonplace. Grinspoon reminds us that Johannes Kepler was a “philosopher/freak who walked the fine line between genius and delusion” and that until the 1960s astronomers believed that the dark patches on Mars were vegetation.
The meat of the book starts in the second section. Here, Grinspoon weaves a tale of cosmic evolution from the Big Bang through the formation of the solar system and the evolution of life on Earth. Although written as if for a general audience, much of his discussion seems aimed at other scientists working in the field. He strenuously argues against the hypothesis put forth a few years ago by Peter Ward and Don Brownlee in their popular book Rare Earth (Copernicus, New York, 2000). Rather than concluding as they do that Earth is uniquely suited to the development of intelligent life, Grinspoon emphasizes the adaptability of life to different environments and especially the role life has played in shaping Earth’s unusual characteristics.
The need to be open-minded as to what constitutes a habitable planet and what forms extraterrestrial life might take is a recurring theme throughout the book. Many current ideas about extraterrestrial life are based on the assumption that liquid water is a basic requirement for life. If it is, the most likely places in the solar system to find life beyond Earth are Mars, which once had abundant water, and Europa, which probably does currently. Grinspoon uses the Gaia hypothesis (that Earth can in some sense be considered a “super-organism” of interconnected biogeochemical feedback mechanisms) and complexity theory to argue for a more generous definition of habitable worlds. He holds that a key characteristic of “living worlds” should be chemical disequilibrium, with large flows of energy and/or matter. By these criteria, he suggests, we should also be searching for cloud creatures on Venus and sulfur-based critters on the volcanic Jovian moon Io.
Grinspoon begins the third section with scientific beliefs in aliens–SETI and the famous Drake equation (which calculates the number of communicating alien civilizations in the Galaxy)–before venturing into the nonscientific worlds of UFO abductions and conspiracy theorists. His emphasis continues to be on keeping an open mind. SETI assumes that aliens would continuously broadcast radio transmissions for thousands of years. Anti-UFO skeptics argue that UFOs are not alien spacecraft, because “aliens just wouldn’t act that way.” But both assumptions are based on preconceived notions of alien behavior, about which we actually know nothing. (Grinspoon falls into his own trap as well, dismissing popular ideas about UFOs basically because they are so “B-movie.”)
The book becomes increasingly personal in the final chapters as Grinspoon delves deeper into more speculative ideas regarding spirituality and the nature of intelligence. He muses that humans are not yet truly intelligent and that to become so will require much better collective behavior as a species. He seems overly pessimistic in his assessment of our likelihood of becoming such a species, based on our propensity for perpetrating violence on one another. I would argue that such developments as the global eradication of certain diseases and the advent of international courts to try war criminals paint a more optimistic picture than the examples he gives of SETI@home and world music. The author closes with even wilder speculation regarding species immortality and machine civilizations.
Grinspoon’s childhood coincided with the days of the Apollo and Viking missions. With Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan as family friends, it is perhaps inevitable that he became a planetary scientist with a strong interest in astrobiological questions (which he pursues at the Southwest Research Institute). This background clearly colors his thinking about his subject, and his optimism about the existence of alien life sometimes comes off as wishful thinking informed by too many Star Trek episodes. However, he is quite clear where the science leaves off and the more intellectually squishy natural philosophy of the book’s subtitle comes into play. His lively and engaging writing style is well-suited to the broad range of subjects encountered here. Chapters are enlivened by well-chosen epigrams (from Victor Hugo to Madonna), personal anecdotes, and a huge number of footnotes (ranging from informative to clever to occasionally annoying). In the end, Lonely Planets is an entertaining and thought-provoking book about a great deal more than nothing.
San Diego Union-Tribune:
By Bruce Lieberman
November 16, 2003 .
THE ‘LONELY PLANETS’ GUIDE; David Grinspoon makes the case for searching for life elsewhere.
When I was a boy in the late 1960s and ’70s, it was easy to imagine that space was a place full of adventure, with strange extraterrestrials living on faraway planets and traveling in great ships. My brothers and I, after all, saw astronauts land on the moon. We watched “Lost in Space” and “Star Trek,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T..”
David Grinspoon, just a few years older, is part of that same generation for whom traveling in space became a reality, and the possibility of life beyond Earth a real scientific question, not merely the subject of some Flash Gordon serial. His new book, “Lonely Planets,” tells of this very human obsession with the stars, but it offers much, much more. As a planetary scientist and an adviser to NASA on space exploration, Grinspoon is a believer in life elsewhere. He’s a champion for exploring our solar system, and heading for the stars to look sfor life.
The nighttime sky has always beckoned, and Grinspoon introduces us to some of the scientists who spent their time looking up. Among them were Copernicus, who crushed the view of an Earth-centered universe; Kepler, who worked out the mathematical laws of planetary motion; and Galileo, whose observations of Jupiter’s moons provided hard evidence that the Earth was far from the center of everything. By the late 19th century, American astronomer Percival Lowell had the world transfixed on “canals” on Mars — the creation of some faraway civilization, people believed.
In Part II, Grinspoon takes us on a thrilling ride through the history of, well, everything: the Big Bang; the lives of stars and the birth of planets; a molten, hostile Earth and the evolution of an atmosphere, oceans and life. Planetary science is now an interdisciplinary field requiring knowledge of cosmology, astronomy, physics, geology, atmospheric sciences and molecular biology. With metaphor, analogy and clear, entertaining writing, Grinspoon carries us through eons of Earth history, to help us understand how we got here: If we’re going to think about life beyond Earth, we should know something about the only other example we know of.
Yet our Earthly perspective, Grinspoon writes, can be limiting; our assumptions about what makes life, and what it needs to survive, may be incomplete. A visit to Jupiter’s moon, Europa, by way of the aptly named spacecraft Galileo in the 1990s, showed a fractured, shifting shell of fresh-water ice, beneath which scientists suspect lies a vast ocean that may harbor life. How does that ocean, so far from the sun, keep from freezing? The source of energy that generates heat appears to be the tidal forces of gravity exerted by Jupiter, the massive planet that Europa orbits — so life may not depend so entirely on a sun, after all. Within the next decade or two, scientists hope to send probes back to Europa to find out for sure.
In the meantime, other scientists are listening for signs of life by training radio telescopes on the stars. Grinspoon describes the ambitious (detractors call it fanciful) program called SETI: the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. If ETs are out there, interstellar space may crackle with their radio transmissions — just as we’ve been sending signals into space ever since radio was invented.
In the end, people seem to want to believe that we are not alone. The author comes back to this idea when he writes about the continuing interest in UFOs, even an obsession in recent years with a rock formation on Mars that looks like a face. Grinspoon may not believe in all those things, but he remains a dreamer — if always a scientist first.
“What do I really believe?” he writes at the end of this terrific book. “I think our galaxy is full of species who have crawled up from the slime of their home worlds, evolved self-awareness and started to tinker, passed beyond the threat of technological self-extermination, and transcended their animal origins to move out into the cosmos.” Won’t it be wonderful if time will tell?
Grinspoon tackles E.T. in a style that will satisfy science nerds and English majors alike. Drawing on astronomy, biology, and pop culture, the NASA adviser validates the big bang theory, traces the human search for aliens, and suggests that extraterrestrial life, at least on a microbial level, is out there. Read closely: Illustrations such as the Cosmic Evolution chart that puts Hendrix at the peak of complex civilization offer some of the wittiest insights.
— Jessica Hilberman
(reviewed by John Rummel, NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer)
David Grinspoon has done all of us a service by putting together his lively and playful look at the history of beliefs about alien life forms and the current spectrum of such beliefs, including the best and worst science regarding E.T. life as well as some of the more faith-based approaches now current. It is a fun book, and should be read by anybody serious enough about Astrobiology to want to know where it came from, and where it might be possible to go.
As to the title, and with apologies to the travel-guide series (I suppose), one can take two basic approaches to the basic question about E.T. life. One, the real-estate approach, is to ask, “Is there anybody else out there (or do we already own it all)? The other is the more contemplative, but perhaps too introspective, “Are we alone?” Grinspoon’s title may refer to the latter, but his answer to those questions will bring no peace to the realtors among us.
Grinspoon has managed to convey the intellectual growth of the field from Epicurus to the NASA Astrobiology Institute, with everything in-between, while informing readers about the pitfalls of trying to extrapolate from the one example of life that we now have. Hence, we have David’s “Natural Philosophy” approach, where “perhaps we can study life’s universals without simply projecting visions of our own kind out into the cosmos.” It may be that his emphasis on the distinctions between natural philosophy and science is Grinspoon’s most important contribution in the volume, although the context in which all astrobiology research must take place is traced by dates, time, facts and figures as well as by developing an appropriate intellectual perspective. All of your favorites and some of your colleagues appear somewhere in the sweep of this book, from Fontenelle to Fermi, Kant to Condon, St. Augustine to Sagan, and Galileo to Galileo .
Overall, the pace is quick and the narrative engaging. The occasional photo or illustration is a help, though one can envision Grinspoon’s collection containing much, much, more—we will have to wait for the coffee-table version for those (or see the large number of outtake images, indexed by relevant chapter and page, atwww.lonelyplanets.net ). Though the book is reasonably priced, undergraduates can save a few bucks by waiting for the updated paperback edition to be published in fall, 2004.
In my first pass at the text I only found one obvious error (Wolf Vishniac died of a fall in 1973 while climbing in the Asgard Mountains in Antarctica, and did not “freeze to death”), but I will leave it to you, the eventual reader, to find any others that may inhabit the book. A more productive approach will be to follow the arguments that Grinspoon makes, and when possible to replay them with colleagues present—perhaps in the comfort and enjoyment of your own bar—wherever that may be, and whatever you might be drinking. There are some great conversations that can be fed by this book, and I am sure that the time taken to find it and read it will be amply repaid to the readers of this journal.
And for those of you who are regular attendees at Astrobiology meetings, you can have some of those conversations with David Grinspoon himself—
Prepare, prepare, prepare….
Scientific American :
As he tells engagingly the story of humankind’s long fascination with the possibility of extraterrestrial life, Grinspoon ponders the impact of a first contact in the form of a radio message from an intelligent civilization. “It might be frightening, liberating, uplifting, disturbing, or all of the above, but I say, ‘Bring it on.'” And what if the first form of extraterrestrial life to be discovered turns out to be microbes? It “would enlarge our kingdom.” Grinspoon, principal scientist in the department of space studies at the Southwest Research Institute and adjunct professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder, concludes with his own belief: “I think our galaxy is full of species who have crawled up from the slime of their home worlds, evolved self-awareness and started to tinker, passed beyond the threat of technological self-extermination, and transcended their animal origins to move out into the cosmos.”
Principal scientist at the Southwest Research Institute’s department of space science, Grinspoon offers an up-to-date picture of the search for extraterrestrial life and the prospects of finding it in a universe that we now know contains other solar systems. It also covers the nearly four centuries that the search has been under way since the initial observations of Renaissance astronomers. As soon as biology joined the inquiring minds, theories multiplied thick and fast; the historiography of the scientific debate is complex and has the potential for being unbearably dull. But Grinspoon handles the wide variety of material necessary for a coherent narrative with great aplomb, marshalling material such as the charming Conversations, a 17th-century dialogue by a French astronomer in which a philosopher and a marquise debate astronomical topics. Even when he turns to physics, the author runs to phrases like “the Sun in its wild youth” to describe the energy output of various kinds of stars, making this book less a popularization than a personable chat on life, the universe and everything.
by Frank Drake
David Grinspoon has succeeded marvelously at producing a comprehensive, enjoyable overview of astrobiology, the epitome of multi-disciplinary research. Emphasizing the most important topics, he maintains a balanced view of the science as a whole. This is no mean feat in a field rife with personal agendas and professional prejudice.
As the title suggests, the book contains a history of the thoughts – some hundreds of years old – about extraterrestrial life. the reader is surprised to find how many of the supposed modern ideas in astrobiology are – the Fermi Paradox (“Where are they?”), for example, was first expressed about half a century before Fermi stated it.
Grinspoon often diverts the narrative to reminisce about his first contact with an idea, a discovery, or a famous person, and the effect it had on his thinking and interests. Professional scientists may see this as undesirable. However, young people contemplating an astrobiology career will be fascinated – they will sense Grinspoon’s delight (and sometimes repulsion) and his realization that he still has much to learn. It will give them a feeling for what it is like to embark on a scientific career. Seeing how normal people become scientists will enlighten and, hopefully, encourage them.
The enigmatic title of the book may suggest, misleadingly, that it rehashes Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, a recent book by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee. Indeed, many chapters sound as thought they share Rare Earth’s pessimism about the cosmic abundance of complex life (but not primitive life). However, Grinspoon is very knowledgeable about the endless complexities and oddities of biology and planets. Everything is here – theories of planetary formation and evolution, the origin of life, the evolution of complex life, and even the evolution of intelligence and technology. The reader slowly reaches a conviction, endorsed in the book’s final words, that space is rich in intelligent creatures.
One twist, which may seem very strange and even depressing, is a long section on the possible reality of UFOs. What is that subject doing in an otherwise scientifically sound book? Here again, we encounter Grinspoon’s experiences. He plunges into this world, troubling to a scientist and rife with anecdote, misperceptions, con men, fraud, hoaxers, and the insane. He emerges (as I did when I made the same investigation) with the conclusion that there’s nothing of importance here – except to psychologists, psychiatrists, and district attorneys.
The writing is superb. Although unabashedly technical, it is an easy, if long, read. Grinspoon occasionally uses slang and “street talk”, which may trouble older readers. However, much more often one hears echoes of the beautiful prose of the late and much missed Carl Sagan and Stephen J. Gould.
Anyone, even a professional scientist, who wishes to become familiar with contemporary astrobiology should read this book. It’s a prime place to become more than casually acquainted with one of the hottest, most interesting fields of science.
by Laurence Marshall
Johannes Kepler, the German mathematician who formulated the basic laws of planetary motion, penned a short essay in 1593 in which he postulated that a herd of monstrous winged amphibians roamed the moon’s mountains and seas. A decade and a half later, when Galileo trained his first telescope upon the moon and brought into focus canyons and plains that looked remarkably Earth-like, the scientific search for alien life in the cosmos began in earnest.
Granted, progress was slow: It was not until the 1970s that high-tech orbiters began mapping the surfaces of Mars and Venus. Since then NASA spacecraft have observed erupting volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io and have found ice-encrusted oceans on another of its moons, Europa. This January the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter sent home data showing that the Red Planet’s poles, like those of Earth, are capped with ice. What makes the current age of planetary discovery so remarkable, writes David Grinspoon, is that it is driven not by the promise of great riches or power but by a simple question: Are we alone in the universe? Though much extraterrestrial inquiry today remains as speculative as it was in Kepler’s time, there are now reputable lines of scientific investigation yielding promising results.
It is these lines of inquiry that Grinspoon, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado, explores in a book that balances solid science with offbeat, often hilarious detours into arenas such as his stockpile of alien paraphernalia, which includes a pipe-smoking alien lawn gnome. Grinspoon focuses primarily on astrobiology, a discipline that combines ideas from astronomy, geology, and the life sciences. This emerging field challenges the old notion that life can be found only in temperate, Earth-like environments. If bacteria can survive embedded in rock strata miles beneath the surface of Earth—as they do—why not look for life below the permafrost of Mars, under the sea ice of Europa, or near the volcanoes of Io? Why not look beyond, to the more than 100 planets that have now been discovered outside our solar system? Or even further, to the hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, or to the hundreds of billions of galaxies in the visible universe? Newly sensitive technology makes the search for life in this near-limitless space far from preposterous.
Grinspoon also has his gonzo side, and he’s not afraid to embrace it. In one entertaining riff, he heads to the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, a “power vortex” that seems to have attracted more than its share of New Age cultists. Straight-faced locals show him videos of UFOs and quote telepathic conversations with visiting ETs, prompting Grinspoon to wax philosophical on the preciousness of life on our planet and the need for a galactic consciousness. But he doesn’t believe for a moment that we’re being visited by large-eyed waifs with anal probes. Scientists and crazies may be separated by a great divide, but they do share one article of faith: With planets as common as they seem to be, and stars as numerous as we know they are, there must be life out there somewhere just waiting for us to find it.
by Thomas Boutell
A marvelously accessible, irreverent and fun exploration of the possibilities for other life in the universe.
“Are we alone in the universe? Any curious human being will recognize the question. David Grinspoon’s Lonely Planets is a broad, newcomer-friendly and often hilarious exploration of the subject of extraterrestrial life. David Grinspoon is a respected planetologist with a particular focus on Venus. He is also a very engaging writer, able to translate dry scientific ideas for a general audience without patronizing. Most surprisingly, he can tell a joke, and as a representative of the scientific tribe, he can also take one. His first-hand experiences growing up surrounded by luminaries like Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov enable him to tell the story of astrobiology and SETI as few others can.
Grinspoon, though, never falls victim to the temptation to proclaim that intelligent aliens are a scientific certainty, nor does he ridicule those who come to a belief in aliens by a less-than-scientific route.
The book begins with a historical perspective, telling the old stories of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Lowell in fresh and surprising ways. This makes even these chapters recommended reading for experts as well as newcomers to astronomy. Grinspoon is not content to repeat the usual pieties about these scientific “saints.” For instance, he reveals that Galileo did much to intentionally antagonize the pope in his writings about the solar system. He also discusses the more off-the-wall beliefs that many early luminaries of science have held. He explores the link between the end of the earth-centered view of the universe and the beginning of a centuries-long popular craze for the idea of planets around every sun, and intelligent beings on every planet.
The second section of the book deals with the science of suns, planets, moons, and the potential life in, on and around them. All of the popular candidates, including Mars, Europa, and Titan, are discussed in nonscientist-friendly detail. Unearthly life is a broad subject, and Grinspoon does not cover it with perfect evenness. His chapters on cosmology, the early Earth, chemical evolution, and the cambrian explosion are great stuff; but after a quality discussion of DNA, he builds up the idea that RNA most likely evolved first, with ever quite saying what RNA is or explaining its role in our cells today.
But this is a rare omission. The science in the book is sound, and the footnotes and asides consistently entertaining. No song reference or movie quote is left unquoted, always to good effect. Throughout, Grinspoon maintains an almost unheard-of humility, always careful to point out how much we simply don’t know about life on Earth, let alone life elsewhere.
The third and final section of the book could never have been written by a less honest or more egotistical scientist. It may also help that he plays in a reggae band. Titled “Belief,” part three begins with a discussion of the development and present state of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, as nearly anyone with a screensaver knows. Grinspoon explores Fermi’s paradox — if they exist, why haven’t they arrived on Earth, or at least said hello by radio? He doesn’t duck the hard questions, and he brings us the human story of the SETI pioneers on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He acknowledges that the strong desire to believe in aliens is as something almost religious for many people, including scientists. And he gives the UFOlogists their due, taking a fascinating journey to the San Luis Valley of Colorado. If something really hasn’t been adequately explained, he acknowledges that: “there are mysteries. Are we unfaithful to the church of Science if we admit that there are mysteries?” But he does point the finger at a few flimflam artists, and doesn’t hide his disappointment with certain alien-visitation true believers who should probably know better.
Maybe the temptation to believe is not so hard to forgive. Where our knowledge is imperfect, our beliefs and hopes always become entwined. Grinspoon ends the book with a meditative chapter on “astrotheology,” pulling together the threads of science and faith, exploring the moral implications of intelligent life elsewhere and sharing his own beliefs in the matter.
I recommend this book both for space buffs and for less “scientific,” less skeptical readers on their gift lists. The book is worth reading for many reasons — engaging writing, a friendly introduction to the science involved, eye-opening history, and a chance to learn a skilled planetologist’s best guesses at what we may discover living or not living on, in or around Mars, Europa, and yes, Venus. Not since Sagan and Asimov passed away has there been a science writer with such a voice.
Will anyone hate this book? Maybe — new agers, pot-haters, and supporters of the Bush administration could get their noses out of joint… but only if they read every footnote, and completely fail to take a joke. Most will be as entertained and informed as the rest of us.
by Kilian Melloy
With his previous book, Venus Revealed, Dr. David Grinspoon offered a chatty, informative, and passionate biography on the life and times of Earth’s sister planet, the brilliant and, for most of history, inscrutable planet Venus, a world that captured the devotion of astronomers the world over from pre-Columbian Americans to the scientists of Arabia, and which also provoked the imaginations of generations of science fiction writers who envisioned steamy swamps and primeval marshlands hidden beneath those thick, opaque clouds. If Mars with its rusted, virtually airless surface drove us wild with imaginary canals and deceptive polar ice caps, it was Venus that really uncorked the human imagination.
But as human inquiry into the universe has brought us to visit the other planets of the solar system, the dreams of Martian conquerors and vast Venusian oceans and swamps have vanished. If life is out there, it is either very well hidden — or a long, long way from here. Grinspoon, noting that our curiosity about extraterrestrial intelligence remains undampened despite this setback, looks into both possibilities with his wonderful new work, Lonely Planets. As the title suggests, this is as much travel guide as popular science outing, and as readers of Venus Revealed would expect of the irrepressible Grinspoon, the book is cleanly and thoughtfully set out, impeccably researched and reasoned, and spiced up with endless pop culture riffs (everything from Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp to Bob Dylan), odious and scintillating puns, and a generally lively, brisk, and humorous tone.
First off — if there is life in our own cosmic back yard, why isn’t it green, bipedal, and looking to relieve us of our terrestrial real estate? Where are the desperate hordes of Martians seeking an off-world alternative to their own frozen and desiccated planet? Where are the bevies of beauties arrayed in silver mesh and accessorized with ray guns that fanciful Hollywood films and writers of speculative fiction, cooped up for too many hours at their typewriters, once fantasized about? Grinspoon details the probable past lives of our nearest rocky neighbor worlds, explaining as he does so the intricate and mysterious processes of life’s emergence on Earth, and the ways in which life and geology have affected one another across three and a half billion years of terrestrial natural history. Could life have begun on Mars and Venus only to have been destroyed by radical environmental changes? How did life survive and adapt to the radical changes it wrought on an early Earth? Could life have been seeded here by means of interplanetary debris, knocked loose when caroming comets and asteroids nailed the inner worlds of the solar system — are we all really Martians, transplanted to Earth by a meteor strike and given a few billion years to evolve and adapt? And if life on Earth has managed to occupy even extreme environments — boiling water gushing out of deep-sea vents, tiny cracks in the Earth’s rocky surface, even in the clouds that graze high mountain tops — then could any life that once thrived on Venus or Mars have retreated underground to safety? Or has it perhaps evolved into something super-hardy and maybe even barely recognizable?
Grinspoon examines each of the nearby planets in turn, offering some surprising but well thought out candidates for life: Jupiter’s cranky, volcanic moon Io hardly seems likely, but Grinspoon ranks it right up there with Europa, the frozen Jovian satellite with, it is a near certainty, deep oceans surging beneath that outer icy shell. Even tiny, frozen, far-flung Pluto receives a mention as a place where life in some form could maybe have taken hold.
Then there are the extrasolar planets — more than a hundred have been documented so far, and the number grows all the time. It’s one thing for our Sun’s small brood to swap spit with one another across the aeons, possibly sharing microbes or other early forms of living material, but out there, across the vast separation of interstellar distances, what might we expect to discover? A Martian microbe, while unlikely, would probably be recognizable; what might 51 Pegasi’s hot, super-Jovian world have to offer? Grinspoon isn’t at all certain, except, of course, to be certain that we just don’t know, but he does offer the optimistic prediction that if life is Out There and we somehow manage to roust ourselves away from Earth’s gravity well and go take a look at those far-distant worlds, we will recognize the local flora and fauna as living things by taking a careful look.
The science aspects of the book (the chemistry of life as we know it, possible alternative life chemistries, the formation of suns and worlds, the genetic machinery of life) are accessible and imparted as much with friendly enthusiasm as with careful, thorough accuracy, but there are other, less scientific topics that Grinspoon wishes also to address. Speculations on, and now the search for, intelligence originating from the stars have been with us for a very long time indeed, and while the thoughts people have had on the question may ultimately have nothing to do with the truth of the matter, their arguments and fantasies about life elsewhere have proven a reliable means of commentary on life right here. When we go looking for E.T., we take with us more than good intentions of universal friendship: we also bring along bundles of preconceptions and biases, and those biases of ours change across the ages. We no longer look, Grinspoon points out, for men and women in Regency dress out among the stars, as did those who wrote and thought about inhabitants among the “plurality of worlds” during the Enlightenment; nor do we anticipate stumbling across alien sex queens, like Captain Kirk was always doing on Star Trek, on anything resembling a regular basis; in fact, we think we know better now than to look for anything remotely humanoid, but then again — who can say? If our bodies have developed to thrive in gravity, out of water, and if our physical construction is recognizably related to fractals, then perhaps alien physiognomy, if planet based and land dwelling, will turn out to be something not so very different from ourselves after all. We have entered a more accepting and rational age in some respects, an age more attuned to diversity and less affirming of our former suppositions of divine privilege, an age that looks to mathematics more than to holy writ for revelations, but here too Grinspoon cautions us. A truly advanced intelligence, he warns, might not share our current “science good, spirituality bad” outlook, and indeed value-free science might be the sort of mistake that weeds out errant young civilizations from the galactic jungle.
Thirty or fifty years from now, it will remain instructive to look back on this book and see the ways in which it is dated, and the ways in which it remains timeless. What biases do Grinspoon’s careful arguments reveal and unconsciously embrace? It is impossible to expect Grinspoon not to bring his own biases and beliefs into his book, and the author himself recognizes this. In fact, he devotes an entire section to “Belief,” where he discusses his own convictions — scientific, based on what he calls “informed intuition,” as well as spiritual — and the beliefs of others, including the New Age movement and UFO abductees (they prefer to be called “experiencers,” by the way). Among the personal convictions he shares, Grinspoon offers a logical, mathematical proof that aliens who are, in some sense, immortal and, in many ways, more intelligent, wiser, more powerful, and perhaps even more conscious than we are, must exist, and their civilizations must number in the thousands in our galaxy alone. The troubling question posed by Fermi’s paradox remains — if there are aliens and if they’re so wise and powerful, then where are they already? — but here too, Grinspoon offers reasonable and informed speculations.
Lonely Planets is a goodie bag stuffed with all the really cool things about science, along with a handful of things about science and technology that Grinspoon frankly believes could use improvement. It’s a philosophical meditation, a social commentary, and a visionary, panoramic painting, vivid and vibrant, of what might be out there, just waiting, in the distant recesses of the universe. These are questions than concern all of us, not simply the flaky and the academic, because the universe is, in the largest sense, our environment, and nothing could be more practical than to make an effort — sustained and serious — to understand our environment, our origins, and the role we play in the cosmos. These are huge, complex, and central questions relevant to our deepest desires, fears, and hopes; Grinspoon, with pluck, discipline, and humor, unveils them for us and gives us tentative answers that make sense, even if at first glance they may seem grandiose or airy. This is the story of us as we look toward the night sky, and of our singular, perhaps unique, and — for now, at least — lonely planet. .
Chris Winter’s Web Review (Includes a discussion of musical references in Lonely Planets)
May 13 2004
by Chris Winter
Who would have guessed that Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan would come up with the key that astrobiology needs to fulfill its great quest? Yes, it’s true! The clue is right there on page 278 of Dr. Grinspoon’s book, when he describes Earth’s biosphere as behaving “exuberantly”. Previously, he had explained how living worlds are out of kilter, geochemically discombobulated: crusts and mantles churned by tectonic forces, atmospheres aswirl with unstable compounds — in a word, irrational. Well, there you have it! All the scientists have to do is find instances of irrational exuberance, and they’ll be home free. I wonder if Dr. Grinspoon has known this all along. Hmmm… Grinspoon — Greenspan: About as similar as Jackson Roykirk and James T. Kirk. Is there more here than meets the eye? Enquiring minds want to know…
But seriously, folks, I hope everyone realizes that I did the preceding paragraph with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. I would have indicated this with an emoticon, but recent surfing experience tells me that emoticons are passé. Dr. Grinspoon has written a serious book, and there’s a great deal in it with serious import. But he’s put a good deal of whimsy in there as well, and I am whimsifiable. (1) When reviewing a book whose cover rips off the ending of the film 2010: The Year We Make Contact, and which opens with the immortal “It was a dark and stormy night”, how else could I have started? Well, in a different mood, I might have started like so:
The scientific method on which so much of our contemporary world is built relies on two things: the repeatability of phenomena, and the testability or falsifiability of hypotheses. So far so good. But the great success of science has led to scientism — the dogmatic view that science holds all the answers and all of the questions that matter. Dr. Grinspoon rails against scientism, and rightly; being dogmatic, it is antithetical to true science, which holds that everything within its purview is provisional. Is evolution a proven fact? No, it just looks like the best way to explain the life forms we observe. Is the speed of light the ultimate velocity, impossible to surpass? It seems to be, based on a lot of evidence; but scientific investigation has radically changed our conception of the world before, and may do so again.
Think back over the past three or four decades. You’ll probably recall that science brought forth a number of radical changes in world-view during this period. Most applied to the very largest scales. The Big Bang became accepted. A fifth force was proposed, then rejected, and now seems to be back, sort of, in the form of dark energy that is causing everything in the universe to move apart faster and faster. Searching somewhat closer to home, we’ve discovered more than a hundred planets orbiting other stars, and learned enough about our own solar system to know that life thrives (or may survive) in what yesterday we thought were the most unlikely places.
Those places include Mars, Jupiter’s large moon Europa, and various volcanic vents, hot springs, and cold dry valleys on our Earth. Dr. Grinspoon is a planetary scientist, so he knows about such discoveries. He tells us about them in this book. His account is breezy, irreverent, idiosyncratic, but never shallow or rambling, and very seldom inaccurate. Into it he drops references to films, music, science-fiction books, and other facets of contemporary culture. All of this makes it an easy and very enjoyable read (and explains why the copies at the Mountain View, CA public library have been on hold since they were purchased.)
But wait; there’s more! The book is divided into three parts: History, Science, and Belief. The account of discoveries I’ve just described is, naturally enough, in the Science section. History traces the unfolding of the concept of a “plurality of worlds” from ancient Greece to the present day. That section reveals some surprising perspicacity — for example that of Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle. Writing in 1686, in the wake of the Copernican Revolution, Fontenelle penned a book that discusses the birth and death of stars, life on other worlds, and the types of incredibly hardy creatures we now call extremophiles. Finally, in Belief, Grinspoon sets forth his preparation for a scientific career, his experiences among UFO believers, his present attitudes, and his hopes for the future. Perhaps chief among the latter is the hope that scientists undertaking the search for life elsewhere (which includes both SETI and astrobiology) will tear down the barriers of narrow specialization that walled them apart and embrace a more interdisciplinary approach. He compares this to the way science was practiced before the twentieth century dawned, in the days when it was known as natural philosophy. (2)
Seldom have I encountered a book which presents as much information in a way that makes it so effortless to absorb. Its narrative is well (if somewhat funkily) complemented by a collection of black and white photographs. (3) Annotated recommendations for further reading, an informative list of permissions, and a thorough index round out the book. I recommend it highly. (And I’m more eager than ever to read his first book, Venus Revealed.)
There are some errors of various sorts — but not an unusual number of them. I put those I found on the Errata page, linked below. I also indulged myself trying to pick out all the pop-music references he makes in the text; these are presented on another page. Finally, I made up a page with some comments on the text.
(1) If you’ve read my introduction to these reviews, you know that already.
(2) Hence the subtitle of his book.
(3) Dr. Grinspoon has a Web site in progress. There you will find color versions of the book’s images, additional notes, and the usual features of a personal site.
Dallas Morning News:
March 21, 2004
by Alexandra Witze
Lonely Planets is a Lonely Planet guide to the universe, packed with useful information served up with a wry, amusing twist. But rather than learning about trekking through Nepal, in David Grinspoon’s new book you’ll discover why and how humanity is so fascinated by the thought of life elsewhere in the cosmos.
Earth, we soon learn, is anything but lonely. The universe is teeming with other planets that could support life. Mr. Grinspoon, a self-declared science-fiction geek turned card-carrying planetary scientist, provides us Earthlings with a primer on where we might first find our cosmic neighbors.
The first third of Lonely Planets delivers a concise history of scholars who grappled with the idea of whether anyone is out there. The ancient Greeks thought so. Then Aristotle came along and demolished the notion for the next few thousand years. Only relatively recently have scientists returned to wondering about whether the universe could be full of other worlds.
Next, Mr. Grinspoon launches into an overview of modern planetary science, dipping into topics from the basics of DNA to the evolution of planetary atmospheres. He does it all in a breezy, engaging style unlike anything you’ll find in most popular science books. The footnotes alone constitute an hour’s worth of amusing reading. (“Pyrolysis is a technical, scientific term for ‘burning the crap out of something.’ “)
One of his greatest strengths is putting in its proper context the science of astrobiology, or life in the cosmos, a field that had languished on the fringe as “exobiology” for decades. Carl Sagan died around the time that this, one of his treasured subjects, began to undergo a renaissance triggered by discoveries such as planets outside the solar system and life thriving in bizarre environments on Earth. Mr. Grinspoon now steps deftly into Mr. Sagan’s mantle.
In the third section, the author ventures into territory that few scientists have touched since Mr. Sagan: that of belief. He writes about crop circles. He talks to a waitress who thinks she had been abducted and marked on the thigh by aliens. He prints pictures of the “face” on Mars, an agglomeration of rocks that some believe is a deliberate construction by Martians. Here he brings a scientist’s viewpoint to topics recently explored in thought-provoking books such as Joel Achenbach’s Captured by Aliens and Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things.
Perhaps the only quibble a reader might find is that not all of us have been lucky enough to experience Mr. Grinspoon’s eclectic upbringing. Mr. Sagan and Isaac Asimov, among other scientific luminaries, were frequent guests at his parents’ Massachusetts home; his father, Lester, was a Harvard psychiatrist who later gained notoriety as an advocate for legalizing marijuana.
It thus seems fitting that his son can take readers on this mind-altering trip through the cosmos.
Tech Central Station :
Where are they? Physicist Enrico Fermi famously posed this question when asked about intelligent extraterrestrials. If such beings exist, why have we (presumably) not been contacted or visited? Fermi’s Paradox, as it is now known, is more profound than it may appear. Calculations suggest that if our galaxy has even one extraterrestrial civilization with the interest and ability to colonize new star systems, such a civilization could spread far and wide in a period far shorter than the age of the galaxy. There are many possible solutions to Fermi’s Paradox. Perhaps extraterrestrials have no interest in colonization, or destroy themselves before getting very far (but even a single exception would overthrow such explanations). Perhaps extraterrestrials have visited, in the past or present, while keeping a low profile. Maybe a ruthless galactic exterminator wipes out budding civilizations and is right now on the way here. Or it could be that Earth is the only, or at least the first, planet in our galaxy to harbor life or intelligence.
Planetary scientist David Grinspoon delves into Fermi’s Paradox and other questions about extraterrestrial life and intelligence in Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life (Ecco/HarperCollins). The book provides a lively and interesting discussion of astrobiology, the scientific study of possible alien life, and of the broader history and culture of thinking about the subject. Grinspoon uses the term “natural philosophy” to emphasize the interdisciplinary and speculative nature of the issues involved.
Grinspoon is an impressively credentialed scientist with a New Age streak and an irreverent tone. He holds positions at the Southwest Research Institute and the University of Colorado, consults for NASA, and is author of Venus Revealed, a valuable overview of the science of Venus. Grinspoon shows a greater affinity than do many scientists for the Gaia Hypothesis, which likens Earth to a living organism. Thus, he thinks Mars is clearly dead, since a living planet would produce a more complex atmosphere. Similarly, he regards Venus and Jupiter’s moon Io, which have complex flows of matter and energy, as relatively plausible candidates for life. By contrast, much current astrobiology focuses on worlds that have or had liquid water, such as Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa.
Overall, Grinspoon is an optimist about the possibility of finding alien life somewhere. (Such “optimism,” of course, could be a form of extreme pessimism, if one gives much weight to the abovementioned exterminator scenario; but Grinspoon does not.) He notes that the plausibility of alien life is enhanced by the discovery in recent years of dozens of extrasolar planets, or exoplanets, worlds orbiting other stars. He is an enthusiast of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), which seeks radio signals or other electromagnetic evidence of intelligent aliens. He places little credence in the Rare Earth Hypothesis, which holds that complex life arose from unusual conditions here and is uncommon in the universe. Rare Earth, he argues, fails to recognize the Gaia insight that life helped shape the amenable conditions on Earth, and furthermore one can imagine planets that would be even more suitable for life.
Could it be that aliens have already arrived? Reports of alien visitations generate widespread skepticism in the scientific community. Grinspoon worries that this response is too dogmatic. He dismisses the “Face on Mars” and sees little merit in conspiracy theories. But he also warns his fellow scientists to be cautious in assuming how aliens would behave. Visiting remote places in the Southwest, Grinspoon watches the sky carefully, hoping but failing to see an alien spacecraft. He sees no reason to think cattle mutilations have an extraterrestrial cause, but regards some of them as quite mysterious.
If intelligent aliens exist, and know of our existence, there are many possible reasons why they may avoid revealing themselves to us. One scenario is the “zoo hypothesis,” whereby our planet is something like a wildlife preserve set off limits by advanced aliens. Grinspoon wonders whether we are interesting or important enough to be observed in this way. He notes as an alternative the “seedling hypothesis,” in which our planet is akin to one of many seedlings on a forest floor, barely worth a glance from the galactic tourists.
Lonely Planets is written in a colloquial style, replete with anecdotes and asides. Often this works well. A particularly amusing passage involves Grinspoon learning about the finding of suspected fossils in a Martian meteorite several years ago. But at times the tone becomes irritating, as Grinspoon displays his credentials as cultural hipster and political progressive. There is a gratuitous swipe against “a few Flat Earthers and Republican senators,” for instance, and a suggestion that interstellar travel should involve “good weed.” Also, Grinspoon’s discussion of skepticism would be more convincing if he didn’t repeatedly misspell the name of the magazine Skeptical Inquirer.
Grinspoon’s optimism about extraterrestrials extends to a belief that they are probably wise and benevolent. He writes about how advanced beings would have transcended the dangers of self-destruction by developing their compassion and environmental awareness. But here Grinspoon disregards his own advice about assuming too much about aliens. For all we know, extraterrestrial wisdom includes advocacy of a strong defense and free-market economics. Maybe Republican senators do well in galaxy-wide elections.
In Lonely Planets, David Grinspoon brings together what has never before been synthesized: the history, science, culture, and politics of the search for life in the universe. Along the way, you will not escape his practical and often humorous observations of the quest; he is a planetary scientist as well as a dreamer, borne of the space age.
—Neil deGrasse Tyson
Astrophysicist and Director Hayden Planetarium, New York City
David Grinspoon’s Lonely Planets is a thorough and thoroughly readable review of our chances for finding life on other worlds, and what this may mean to us. Breezy yet deep, fun to read and thought-provoking.
President Emeritus of the National Space Society and prolific author of science fiction and science fact
Lonely Planets by David Grinspoon, which is an extremely enjoyable, lucid and thoughtful book about planetary science and the prospects for life on other worlds. He is one of the best writers to emerge from the ranks of planetary science since Sagan.
Co-producer of Star Trek: Enterprise
The Planetary Report
by Louis D. Friedman
Lonely Planets is a fun book to read. The author, a planetary scientist who previously wrote an excellent book about Venus, has a breezy and irreverent style of writing that engages the reader. At times, the breeziness turns to flippancy, which is OK if you agree with the author’s flip.
The book is subtitled The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life . Grinspoon does a terrific job putting the studies and theories of alien life into both their scientific and nonscientific contexts. The new hot topic in space science is astrobiology, a subject that wags (like me) like to say is a subject without subject matter. If you want to know what astrobiology is, why it is the new hot topic, how it guides planetary exploration today, and where the key questions lie, then Lonely Planets is for you. You’ll read through it was you would a good historical novel – dealing with fact and fiction simultaneously. It contains history, biology, physics, and astronomy – and, as stated, a lot of philosophy.
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is covered well in this book (although Grinspoon manages not to mention The Planetary Society, which has supported more scientific searches than any other organization, governmental or nongovernmental, in the world). The search is the province of science and of pseudoscience, and Grinspoon recognizes that assumptions and principles of each are often shared. He is a SETI enthusiast, even though he clearly struggles to find a reason why that is better than “gut feeling.” The case for intelligence (whatever that is) being ubiquitous in the universe and the case for it being rare are well made. Grinspoon, invoking a lot of philosophy, comes out in favor of the former.
The book, both in title and in a fair portion of its content, is a response toRare Earths , the controversial book by Brownlee and Ward. Of them, he says, “They make several crucial errors.” But to refute them, he needs to invoke Gaia, a provocative and controversial idea that makes a planet itself part of the living system.
This is what makes the book so enjoyable – the mixing ideas, insights, and investigations into a look at the most interesting subject outside ourselves: life elsewhere.