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Ask what book-lovers like best about reading, and you will surely get this answer: Through books they experience new worlds, discover new perspectives, and unleash their imaginations.
So what could be a better topic to inaugurate this column than the search for other planets and extraterrestrial life? It's a topic with a history as old as star-gazing, a future as enduring as the Milky Way Galaxy, and a scope as broad as the universe.
An author jugglig a "hot" topic faces the tough choice of when to stop researching and start putting words on paper. In
Distant Wanderers: The Search for Planets Beyond the Solar System, (Copernicus Books, 240 pages, $29.95), Bruce G. Dorminey apparently decided the critical point had come while the topic still had plenty of room for speculation. Most of the projects he describes are in their early stages, where optimistic predictions flourish and unexpected technological challenges lurk.
It's a risky choice: By the time the book is a year old, the number of known planets around nearby stars may well have doubled, and today's news flash will be a forgotten tributary to a continuing stream of extrasolar planetary system surprises.
Or perhaps Mr. Dorminey stopped researching because his travel budget ran out. He takes readers with him to several observatories in Europe and North America, remote sites in Chile, Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and the peak of Mauna Kea where the rarified air starves his brain of oxygen. One suspects that only the lack of suitable transportation kept the Hubble Space Telescope off the itinerary.
At each destination, readers meet dedicated and opinionated scientists and learn about techniques and instruments that detect telltale wobbles in stellar motion. Early chapters build a catalog of planets and methods, while later chapters look ahead to decades of planet-hunting to come.
That forward-looking approach will keep the book from becoming dated. Readers will be able to compare the discoveries of the next several years to the works in progress that Mr. Dorminey so carefully chronicles.
When looking so far ahead, it is difficult not to get carried away in speculation. Perhaps deliberately, Mr. Dorminey yields to that temptation when he discusses the question of life and intelligence in the cosmos. Many readers will question his objectivity about SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and most will gasp at his epilogue's assertion that "in 500 years time, it seems likely that humans ... will be colonizing an Earth-like planet circling some nearby Sun-like star."
Still, how can readers not excuse his optimism? After all, they have traveled with him to meet pioneers whose work is leading humanity to unexpected new visions of our planet's place in the Universe.
Now in Paperback
Distant Wanderers joins a rich and varied stream of books about life beyond Earth that began flowing after the announcements of two momentous scientific discoveries in 1996: possible fossils in a meteorite from Mars and the first extrasolar planets around normal stars.
One of the more interesting and unusual of those books is now reaching a new audience in a paperback edition. In Planetary Dreams: The Quest to Discover Life Beyond Earth (Wiley, 320 pages, $16.95), DNA researcher Robert Shapiro skillfully blends history with the latest discoveries, arguing that the best way to resolve modern controversies is to pursue ancient dreams with futuristic technologies.
Good for Giving
Though scientific progress relies on dispassionate observation, science itself thrives on passion and fascination. On Valentine's Day or any special occasion, men and women look to Venus, to the Moon, to other worlds, and to the future. What could make a better gift for a science reader than a richly illustrated book about humanity's quest for life and grandeur in the universe?
NASA's announcement of possible Martian fossils in Meteorite ALH84001 and the first discoveries of extrasolar planets around normal stars in 1996 produced a browser's delight of excellent books. Don't leave the bookstore or library without perusing the following: Planet Quest by Ken Croswell (review) (1997);
Whenever the opportunity arises, this section will double as the bald-faced self-promotion department. Readers in the 9-14 age range can discover the latest discoveries about life on Mars and the role of cosmic impacts on life on Earth in my books Martian Fossils on Earth? (1997) and Collision Course! (2001), both published by Millbrook Press and described on my children's science website.