Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Non-Fiction: The Life of Super-Earths by Dimitar Saddelov

It doesn’t take long for Harvard professor of astronomy Dimitar Saddelov to get down to business in The Life of Super-Earths (Basic Books). The second line in the book: “What is life and how did it come to be?" In a conversational tone, Saddelov sets out to answer that, as well as anyone can. As he points out, “The actual origin of Earth remains as elusive as ever and may well stay that way. After all, it is a historical question that requires knowing environments that are not preserved in the Earth’s geological record.” Even so, Saddelov points out, there are things we can look at -- and other branches of knowledge and science -- that can perhaps bring us closer to understanding.

From life here on Earth, it’s a short journey to looking for life in other places. As an astronomer, this isn’t a new thought for Saddelov and, as he points out, “it seems likely that on some of these Earth-like planets, we will find signs of life.”

But the quest for life is not Saddelov’s only mission with The Life of the Super-Earths. The author looks also at synthetic biology. “These two milestones,” Saddelov writes, “are going to teach us about our place in the universe in ways we could never have imagined.”

Beyond anything, it seems to me that The Life of Super-Earths is an exploration, both of discoveries and possibilities. As the the sub-title promises: “How the hunt for Alien Worlds and Artificial Cells Will Revolutionize Life on Our Planet.” Considering the nature of the beast -- Saddelov is a scientist, after all -- this subtitle might be a bit of oversell. He is here exploring what is real and what may well be real, after all. Still, this is exciting, thought-provoking stuff. These are the latest and most cutting edge thoughts on that age old question: are we alone in the universe? And perhaps a new wrinkle: If we are alone, will it be for very long? ◊

Aaron Blanton is a contributing editor to January Magazine. He’s currently working on a book based on his experiences as an American living abroad.

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