Light of the stars Alien worlds and the fate of the Earth

Adam Frank, 1962-

Book - 2018

"Light of the Stars tells the story of humanity's coming of age as we awaken to the possibilities of life on other worlds and their sudden relevance to our fate on Earth. Astrophysicist Adam Frank traces the question of alien life and intelligence from the ancient Greeks to the leading thinkers of our own time, and shows how we as a civilization can only hope to survive climate change if we recognize what science has recently discovered: that we are just one of ten billion trillion planets in the Universe, and it's highly likely that many of those planets hosted technologically advanced alien civilizations. What's more, each of those civilizations must have faced the same challenge of civilization-driven climate change. ...Written with great clarity and conviction, Light of the Stars builds on the inspiring work of pioneering scientists such as Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, whose work at the dawn of the space age began building the new science of astrobiology; Jack James, the Texas-born engineer who drove NASA's first planetary missions to success; Vladimir Vernadsky, the Russian geochemist who first envisioned the Earth's biosphere; and James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, who invented Gaia theory. Frank recounts the perilous journey NASA undertook across millions of miles of deep space to get its probes to Venus and Mars, yielding our first view of the cosmic laws of planets and climate that changed our understanding of our place in the universe."--Dust jacket flap.

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New York : W.W. Norton & Company [2018]
Main Author
Adam Frank, 1962- (author)
First edition
Physical Description
vii, 262 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 231-250) and index.
  • Introduction: The Project And The Planet
  • Chapter 1. The Alien Equation
  • Chapter 2. What The Robot Ambassadors Say
  • Chapter 3. The Masks Of Earth
  • Chapter 4. Worlds Beyond Measure
  • Chapter 5. The Final Factor
  • Chapter 6. The Awakened Worlds
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Illustration Credits
  • Index
Review by New York Times Review

near the beginning of his engaging and accessible book "Light of the Stars," Adam Frank strikes a familiar environmental alarm bell: "It's like we've been given the keys to the planet. Now we're ready to drive it off a cliff." Frank's interesting new idea is to combine a history of climate change on Earth with recent astronomical data indicating the likelihood of a vast number of habitable planets in the universe, to suggest that we can strengthen our resolve to kick our bad environmental habits by viewing our terrestrial civilization from a cosmic perspective. For example, he cites evidence that Mars once had liquid water and a thick atmosphere - friendly conditions for life. Apparently, climates can drastically change over time. An astrophysicist at the University of Rochester and a founder of the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture, Frank argues that we earthlings should adopt a new narrative of our history and future. Rather than just continuing to procreate and exploit our capacities and resources on Earth, we should recognize that we and our planet are evolving together. Our planet might be viewed as a single living organism, coined Gaia by the scientist and futurist James Lovelock. We have entered a new geological age, what biologists call the Anthropocene, in which we, Homo sapiens, are altering the planet, and our survival depends on understanding this symbiosis. Frank asks: Have other civilizations elsewhere in the universe, evolving through their corresponding Anthropocenes, managed to survive? And by what strategy? Of course, we don't know the answer to these questions, as we have not yet seen evidence of such civilizations beyond our own planet, and we may well not anytime soon. ("Soon," here, is measured in tens of thousands of years.) "Light of the Stars" traverses a wide terrain of geological, biological and astronomical science, with emphasis on the history of terrestrial climate change and the factors causing those changes, and includes portraits of such scientists as Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, Lynn Margulis and others. Frank enlivens the text with his passion, opinions and even some of his own projections of our possible fates. He is also a good storyteller. We see the great physicist Enrico Fermi and several of his colleagues walking to lunch across the campus of the Los Alamos National Laboratory one warm summer day in 1950, wending their way along a "path lined by pine trees and juniper." In the middle of lunch, Fermi asks the question: "But where are they?," they being the extraterrestrials. If there are so many other life-forms out there in the cosmos, why haven't we seen any of them? Could it be that such civilizations destroy themselves (by nuclear war or climate devastation) after only a few thousand years? The book is divided into two parts. One is a review of environmental science and a history of climate change on Earth. The other concerns the new field of astrobiology, with results from the Kepler satellite, launched in 2009 with the specific mission of looking for undiscovered solar systems, but which also allowed researchers to identify which of those exoplanets were "habitable-zone planets" - those the right distance from their central stars to have liquid water. Here we learn, for example, that roughly 20 percent of all stars have habitable planets and that the universe is full of "super-Earths," planets with masses that fall somewhere between the smaller, rocky Earth and the gaseous and icy Neptune. Although both parts are interesting, I don't quite agree with Frank's overarching thesis that they are linked components of the same story. Isn't the imperative to halt our possibly fatal march to annihilation via human-made environmental destruction the same regardless of extraterrestrial life? We don't need membership in the galactic empire to understand the urgency of our situation here on Earth.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [January 31, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Frank, an NPR blogger and science commentator for All Things Considered, comes across in his usual way, as knowledgeable, witty, irreverent, provocative, and very entertaining. His premise is that we citizens of Earth need to stop acting like egocentric teenagers. We need to grow up and realize that it's extremely improbable that we're the only cognizant species to have ever inhabited a planet. We also need to stop beating ourselves up over how we're destroying our planet. It's obvious that our global civilization has had considerable impact, but Mother Earth is pretty tough. Humans exist only because conditions were created that allowed it. Surely this has happened before, where a nurtured civilization's technology has grown to the point where it's in conflict with its home planet. Frank argues that we should seek out these exocivilizations and learn from them and suggests how to do exactly that. Along the way, he refers to and succinctly but satisfactorily explains extraterrestrial existence theories, such as Fermi's Paradox, the Great Filter, and Drake's Equation. For us normal earthlings, he also incorporates accessible references to H. G. Wells, Carl Sagan, the Mars rovers, Easter Island, and prosthetic Klingon foreheads. This offers solid science and lots of fun, so expect high demand.--McBroom, Kathleen Copyright 2018 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Astrophysicist and NPR commentator Frank (The End of the Beginning) explores "the astrobiology of the Anthropocene" in this skillfully written volume. With an evenhanded approach to issues like the possibility of extraterrestrial life and the threat posed by climate change, Frank's simple, effective narrative interlaces biology, astrophysics, population science, and more to lend a cosmic perspective on the fate of life and earth. "Earth has worn the masks of many worlds" throughout its history of sweeping transformations, he observes, and studying other planets can cast new light on this one's challenges, such as how Venus reveals the dangers of a runaway greenhouse effect. Big-picture summaries of Fermi's paradox and philosophical inquiries into "exo-civilizations" lay out how humans have historically grappled with the question of alien life. The Easter Island civilization's collapse demonstrates "what is true for an isolated island, its ecosystems, and its inhabitants should also be true for planets in the isolation of space." Coupling a bevy of exoplanet data with his own research, Frank approximates the odds of humanity being the only civilization to ever exist as "one in ten billion trillion." Engrossing readers start to finish with persuasive, smooth prose, Frank offers a new take on humanity's place in this "vast and ancient metropolis of stars." (June) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

NPR commentator Frank (astrophysics, Univ. of Rochester; About Time) presents a well-researched and hopeful call for humanity to slow its impact on the planet in order to save it and ourselves. The author frames his discussion of our move to the Anthropocene era (where Earth is impacted by human technologies) on the Drake Equation for predicting the likelihood of other intelligent species in the universe. Frank's and others' research indicates there have been or are other intelligences, but if so, as Enrico Fermi asked, why haven't we heard from them? And, Frank adds, what can we postulate about them, and learn from them, in order to not ruin ourselves and our planet? Enlivening the narrative are discussions of Frank Drake, Carl Sagan, Steve Squyres, Jill Tarter, and other scientists in terms of their personal drives towards understanding the universe (as well as their work). VERDICT Will hold the interest of both teens and adults interested in climate change, physics, or civilization's possible fates. This work can be enjoyed on a narrative as well as deeper scientific level as it features an extensive bibliography for those interested in further research.-Sara R. Tompson, Jet Propulsion Laboratory Lib., Pasadena, CA © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

An engaging effort "to tell a different story about ourselves and our fate among the stars and their many worlds."With the 21st-century discovery that planets circle most stars in our galaxy, books on alien life are pouring off the presses. In his latest, Frank (Astrophysics/Univ. of Rochester; About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, 2011), co-founder of NPR's 13.7: Cosmos and Culture blog, focuses on its implication for earthly life, crafting one of the best introductions to the genre. Since ancient times, writers have speculated about alien civilizations, but a famous scientist once asked a disturbing question: Where are they? On billions of planets over billions of years, surely advanced societies exist. High school math proves that any civilization capable of building ships that travel at 10 percent the speed of light will colonize our galaxy in 650,000 years. With the odds that humans are unique approaching zero, Frank introduces an unsettling idea: Perhaps advanced societies develop routinely and then quickly self-destruct. All life extracts energy from the environment, which changes that environment, often for the worst. But nonhuman life works slowly. Primitive bacteria extracted energy and produced oxygen as a waste product. This eventually killed them, but it took a few billion years. Our technically advanced society became possible when we developed spectacularly great sources of energy. Fifty years ago, researchers worried about nuclear Armageddon, but worries about human-induced climate change and environmental destruction have taken priority. Plenty of species and human culturesEaster Island, Maya, Norsemen on Greenlandhave crashed after exhausting their resources. As Frank writes, we must "stop seeing civilizations like our own as standing apart from the world that gave them birth. All civilizations, including those that might occur on other worlds, are expressions of their planet's evolutionary history."An intriguing account of the ongoing search for alien civilizations whose failure to appear may be a warning for humans to get their act together. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.