Lonely Planets


David Grinspoon


Non Fiction


Date Reviewed:

September 8, 2004

This non fiction book is about astrobiology. It talks about mankind's view of planets with a historical perspective (even a couple of hundred years ago, people speculated about life on other worlds) and then from a modern perspective. The book is divided into 3 sections: History, Science and Belief.

The history portion of the book is the least interesting. Anyone who has read these types of books before is familar with the material - after all, the history doesn't change - we don't read these books to learn about the old beliefs, but instead to learn about the new thoughts and advances. That is one of the problems with the science books - for example, this book includes an explanation of the Drake equation, something I have read about in at least five or six previous sources - I must have first seen it in Cosmos 25 years ago. To be fair to Grinspoon, he can't assume that all his readers know what the Drake equation is, Lonely Planets might be the first book on extraterrestrial life that his reader has picked up, and without an explanation of the equation, it would be hard to follow Grinspoon's discussion on the topic. Still, it slows down the book to reread stuff I already know.

The science portion of the book has some interesting chapters. I am not much interested in what the definition of astrobiology or exobiology, but I am keen to read about Europa and the outer planets, and the possibility of life in harsh environments. We are learning that life is much more resiliant than originally belief - bacteria can survive deep underground, apparently in solid rock.

Grinspoon grew up among astronomers, apparently Carl Sagan was a family friend. Interspersed throughout this book are small tidbits from his personal perspective. I was especially interested in the idea that perhaps advanced alien lifeforms had hidden a message in the genetic sequence of bacteria. When he was younger, Grinspoon tried to create a picture out of the genes, using the technique from the Sagan story Contact.

I didn't like the last section of the book, the "Belief" chapters. Usually at the end of these kind of books, the authors speculate on life on other worlds, or interstellar travel, or whatever exotic future might come to pass. But Grinspoon spends way too much time talking about the people who believe aliens walk amongst. Grinspoon is correct that we don't KNOW for sure that these stories are wrong, and don't have any patience to read about their point of view. I don't want tour of the strange beliefs some of my fellow humans hold, but I am frankly uninterested in them. I thought the section on Belief was a disappointingly weak ending to the book.