Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars

Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars

Lee Billings

Language: English

Pages: 304

ISBN: 1617230065

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

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.


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Washed over the Earth in 1054, just as Western Europe was emerging from its Dark Ages. Sweeping his hand halfway farther out toward the perimeter, he brushed over the Age of Discovery, past rings recording the years when Europeans first explored and colonized the Americas. His hand kept moving until it slid from the stump’s edge. Over the course of the tree’s 2,000-year existence, the Milky Way had fallen nearly five trillion miles closer to its nearest neighboring spiral galaxy, Andromeda, yet.

Candidate transiting planets. “Candidate” was used until each planet could be confirmed or validated by other techniques, though many of Kepler’s stars were too faint for robust follow-up measurements. By early 2013, the Kepler team had announced the discovery of more than a hundred confirmed worlds, and nearly 3,000 candidates. Compressed and plotted onto the rightmost edge of Laughlin’s chart, the announced Kepler candidate planets formed an unbroken line of dots. In comparison to the relative.

Despite being so distant from each other that they are causally disconnected. Light itself has yet to travel between them, not to mention any information or energy or heat that could bring those far-removed sectors of the universe into equilibrium. The leading cosmological explanation for this conundrum is an add-on to the Big Bang called “inflation,” which posits that fractions of a second after our universe’s birth, when everything was squeezed into a hot, dense region perhaps the size of a.

The rocks of the Allegheny Plateau, which runs through Pennsylvania and into portions of surrounding states. • • • The largest known anthracite coal deposit on Earth was discovered in northeastern Pennsylvania in the latter half of the eighteenth century, supposedly when a hunter building a campfire accidentally set a nearby outcropping of crystalline black rock ablaze. By the mid-1800s, Pennsylvania anthracite had supplanted wood as the preferred method for heating homes in the United States,.

With the capacity to produce their own fertilizer, cyanobacteria could uniquely thrive wherever water, CO2, and sunlight were present, and were poised to quite literally conquer the world. Late Archean and early Proterozoic rocks show that’s exactly what they did, flourishing in vast open-ocean blooms and in concentrated communal mats blanketing the shallows and shorelines. By 2.4 billion years ago, the Earth’s new masters produced oxygen so prodigiously that they began to irreversibly transform.

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