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Faint Echoes, Distant Stars: The Science and Politics of Finding Life Beyond Earth    by Ben Bova order for
Faint Echoes, Distant Stars
by Ben Bova
Order:  USA  Can
William Morrow, 2004 (2004)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Dr. Ben Bova (a renowned SF writer), takes us through the history of the search for the origins of life on earth, the hunt for signs of life in the solar system, and various attempts to look beyond it. He gives us glimpses of what's ahead, presents some of the branches of science involved, and goes into the convoluted politics behind the funding of this research. Though the latter interested me much less than the science, a lack of funding might significantly delay research that's key to mankind's future.

Faint Echoes, Distant Stars is a book about the relatively new science of astrobiology, 'the scientific study of the origin, distribution, evolution, and future of life in the universe' - a huge topic that includes some of the big questions, whose answers are of interest to us all. Bova tells us that a 1st century BC Roman, Titus Lucretius, was one of the first to propose the existence of life in other corners of the universe. Biologists tell us that there are three pre-conditions - 'A building-block molecule', a medium for chemical reactions, and energy - and that previous assumptions (that the same conditions as on the surface of our planet are required) are too limiting. We know this is true because living creatures ('extremophiles') have been found in the sulfurous superheated water of thermal vents under our oceans, and it is possible that 'the molecules of life' exist in the 'celestial icebergs' that we call comets.

The book encompasses the (at times violent) life cycle of stars, and the role of asteroids in 'extinction events'. Some scientists believe that comets and asteroids seeded earth with organics as well as water, and attempts are being made to create 'Life in a test tube' from nonliving chemicals. Understanding how intelligent life developed on this planet will give insights into the probability, and clues to the location, of life elsewhere in the universe - for example, if 'a stable long-term global climate' is necessary for the development of intelligence, then searching for planets with large moons might be fruitful. Apparently, it's very hard to find planets around other stars, because of relative brightness - the 'firefly on a searchlight' problem. Bova describes new techniques, in particular to identify a wobble in a star's movement. And he tells us about the discovery of Goldilocks, a planet named because its 'orbit is not too close and not too far from its star', 70 Virginis. Does Goldilocks bear life?

Radio searches for the noisy by-products of intelligence have been unsuccessful so far, and the author tells us of new optical programs looking for 'alien laser flashes'. He even covers a brief history of public interest in UFOs, telling us that though 'it would be wonderful to know that we are being visited by intelligent aliens', all these claims 'wither into empty air' when tested. He expounds on the goals of astrobiology research, including 'Will human beings be able to live in space or on other worlds?' Dr. Bova discusses planned missions, and mentions the apocalypse in our solar system's future, that will engulf humanity, if we are still on the planet by then. Heady stuff indeed, and I highly recommend Faint Echoes, Distant Stars to anyone interested in the evolution of life, and of intelligence, in the universe.

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