Thursday, 2 February 2017

All These Worlds Are Yours - Jon Willis ***

There used to be a popular saying amongst scientists (at least, those who weren't cosmologists) to the effect of 'there's speculation, then there's wild speculation, then there's cosmology.' Even now, there is plenty of uncertainly about how things all started, though we have pinned down a remarkably good picture of most of the last 13.8 billion years. However, at least cosmologists were arguing about something that definitely is there. Remarkably, there's a whole new science of astrobiology which spends its time working on the science of something that may not even exist. Life on other worlds. (As far as I can tell, it was renamed from xenobiology, I suspect either because a) no could pronounce it or b) they thought it was to do with Xena Warrior Princess.)

Most people think there probably is life out there, even if it doesn't fly spaceships around exciting Fox Mulder, but as yet we know nothing about it - so you might think that speculation is absolutely at the heart of this science. And in a way, it is. The science bit comes in deciding to how to look for potential life in the universe, rather than (as yet) studying any alien lifeforms.

Jon Willis takes us on a conventional journey through the potential locations for life in the solar system. He gives the feeling that he thinks Mars is over-rated in this respect, but gets decidedly excited about the various moons of Jupiter and Saturn that could support life, whether in salty water under a thick ice crust or in an enticing mix of frigid liquid methane and ethane. From here we take the further leap to planets around other stars, of which there appear to be billions in our galaxy. As yet we can do very little about detecting life there, but Willis has the chance to take us through the detection mechanisms for remote planets and what might prove to be markers of life in the future.

Throughout, Willis maintains an exhausting energy and bounciness. It's a bit like reading a book written by a puppy. We are battered with rhetorical questions and chatty little remarks. Yet even all this enthusiasm can't avoid making the journey a little dull in places - because we just haven't arrived yet.

Although this book clearly didn't work too well for me, I should stress that there is a lot of information about the various missions to Mars and the outer moons, plus exoplanets here, and even a glancing discussion of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which keeps going despite its loss of government funding.

It's interesting to make the comparison with Louisa Preston's book Goldilocks and the Water Bears, subtitled 'the search for life in the universe.' Although I enjoyed the quirky involvement of tardigrades, the weird little re-animatable creatures known as water bears, I found Willis far better both on looking beyond Earth-inspired types of life and in his scientific coverage. If you can cope with that puppy dog style, this is an informative book, even if it does reinforce the oddity of putting so much effort into studying something we've never seen and may not even exist.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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