Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars
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An intimate history of Earth and the quest for life beyond the solar system
For 4.6 billion years our living planet has been alone in a vast and silent universe. But soon, Earth's isolation could come to an end. Over the past two decades, astronomers have discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars. Some of these exoplanets may be mirror images of our own world. And more are being found all the time.
Yet as the pace of discovery quickens, an answer to the universe's greatest riddle still remains just out of reach: Is the great silence and emptiness of the cosmos a sign that we and our world are somehow singular, special, and profoundly alone, or does it just mean that we’re looking for life in all the wrong places? As star-gazing scientists come closer to learning the truth, their insights are proving ever more crucial to understanding life’s intricate mysteries and possibilities right here on Earth.
Science journalist Lee Billings explores the past and future of the "exoplanet boom" through in-depth reporting and interviews with the astronomers and
planetary scientists at its forefront. He recounts the stories behind their world-changing discoveries and captures the pivotal moments that drove them forward in their historic search for the first habitable planets beyond our solar system. Billings brings readers close to a wide range of fascinating characters, such as:
FRANK DRAKE, a pioneer who has used the world’s greatest radio telescopes to conduct the first searches for extraterrestrial intelligence and to transmit a message to the stars so powerful that it briefly outshone our Sun.
JIM KASTING, a mild-mannered former NASA scientist whose research into the Earth’s atmosphere and climate reveals the deepest foundations of life on our planet, foretells the end of life on Earth in the distant future, and guides the planet hunters in their search for alien life.
SARA SEAGER, a visionary and iron-willed MIT professor who dreams of escaping the solar system and building the giant space telescopes required to discover and study life-bearing planets around hundreds of the Sun’s neighboring stars.
Through these and other captivating tales, Billings traces the triumphs, tragedies, and betrayals of the extraordinary men and women seeking life among the stars. In spite of insufficient funding, clashing opinions, and the failings of some of our world’s most prominent and powerful scientific organizations, these planet hunters will not rest until they find the meaning of life in the infinite depths of space. Billings emphasizes that the heroic quest for other Earth-like planets is not only a scientific pursuit, but also a reflection of our own culture’s timeless hopes and fears.
Some months before our meeting, a European team had announced the discovery of another potentially habitable super-Earth, HD 85512b. Kasting thought “potentially” was an overly generous descriptor—the planet roasts in only slightly less starlight than Venus. “They wrote that a ton of cloud coverage could reflect all that light and make things okay,” he recalled, referring to the European team’s discovery paper. “But clouds sure didn’t save Venus, did they? ” News of more potentially habitable planets had by then become a fairly regular occurrence, with each world’s fortunes cresting and subsiding on the shifting tides of public interest and scientific opinion.
The world’s human population had more than doubled, driven by bioengineered boosts in agricultural productivity, breakthroughs in medicine, and a host of other science-fueled increases in living standards. Simultaneously, extinction rates of natural species had soared due to environmental disruption and habitat destruction. The land was laced with superhighways, power transmission lines, and fiber-optic communications networks; the sky was crisscrossed with transcontinental jet contrails and the starlike gleams of orbital satellites; the air itself was filled with electromagnetic chatter from radios, televisions, and mobile phones, as well as with rising amounts of carbon dioxide from the frenzied combustion of the planet’s reservoirs of fossil fuel.
Muscles worked and writhed along Wiktorowicz’s jaw, and a bead of sweat slid down his temple in the cool air of the control room. Blue sky could be seen through the dome’s open slit, above the aimlessly drifting telescope. The clouds had cleared. He sighed, cursed, produced a turkey sandwich from his bag, and ate it with resignation. “This seems excessive, even for the associate director,” Wiktorowicz said between bites. “It’s like the telescope just lost its mind. Maybe the ghost of that French guy with dysentery is trying to stick it to us.
It is also a chronicle of an unfolding scientific revolution, zooming in on the ardent search for other Earths around other stars. Most of all, however, it is a meditation on humanity’s uncertain legacy. This book’s title, Five Billion Years of Solitude, refers to the longevity of life on Earth. Life on this planet has an expiration date, if for no other reason than that someday the Sun will cease to shine. Life emerged here shortly after the planet itself formed some four and a half billion years ago, and current estimates suggest our world has a good half billion years left until its present biosphere of diverse, complex multicellular life begins an irreversible slide back to microbial simplicity.
Most designs envisioned a starshade between 50 and 100 meters in diameter, gossamer-thin and razor-sharp at its edges, sheathed in dark anti-reflective coatings, floating anywhere between 50,000 and 150,000 kilometers in front of a space telescope. For comparison, the distance between the Earth and the Moon averages some 380,000 kilometers; properly aligning a starshade’s shadow with a telescope would require exquisite orbital control. The starshade would have to autonomously unfurl in space and preserve its vast shape to submillimeter-scale precision, all while using small high-impulse thrusters to linger on or slew between targets.