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Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe [Paperback]

Peter D. Ward , Donald Brownlee
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (84 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Dec 10 2003 0387952896 978-0387952895 2000
What determines whether complex life will arise on a planet, or even any life at all? Questions such as these are investigated in this groundbreaking book. In doing so, the authors synthesize information from astronomy, biology, and paleontology, and apply it to what we know about the rise of life on Earth and to what could possibly happen elsewhere in the universe. Everyone who has been thrilled by the recent discoveries of extrasolar planets and the indications of life on Mars and the Jovian moon Europa will be fascinated by Rare Earth, and its implications for those who look to the heavens for companionship.

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"Do you feel lucky? Well do ya?" asked Dirty Harry. Paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee think all of us should feel lucky. Their rare Earth hypothesis predicts that while simple, microbial life will be very widespread in the universe, complex animal or plant life will be extremely rare. Ward and Brownlee admit that "It is very difficult to do statistics with an N of 1. But in our defense, we have staked out a position rarely articulated but increasingly accepted by many astrobiologists."

Their new science

is the field of biology ratcheted up to encompass not just life on Earth but also life beyond Earth. It forces us to reconsider the life of our planet as but a single example of how life might work, rather than as the only example.

The revolution in astrobiology during the 1990s was twofold. First, scientists grew to appreciate how incredibly robust microbial life can be, found in the superheated water of deep-sea vents, pools of acid, or even within the crust of the Earth itself. The chance of finding such simple life on other bodies in our solar system has never seemed more realistic. But second, scientists have begun to appreciate how many unusual factors have cooperated to make Earth a congenial home for animal life: Jupiter's stable orbit, the presence of the Moon, plate tectonics, just the right amount of water, the right position in the right sort of galaxy. Ward and Brownlee make a convincing if depressing case for their hypothesis, undermining the principle of mediocrity (or, "Earth isn't all that special") that has ruled astronomy since Copernicus. --Mary Ellen Curtin --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

Renowned paleontologist Ward (Univ. of Washington), who has authored numerous books and articles, and Brownlee, a noted astronomer who has also researched extraterrestrial materials, combine their interests, research, and collaborative thoughts to present a startling new hypothesis: bacterial life forms may be in many galaxies, but complex life forms, like those that have evolved on Earth, are rare in the universe. Ward and Brownlee attribute Earth's evolutionary achievements to the following critical factors: our optimal distance from the sun, the positive effects of the moon's gravity on our climate, plate tectonics and continental drift, the right types of metals and elements, ample liquid water, maintainance of the correct amount of internal heat to keep surface temperatures within a habitable range, and a gaseous planet the size of Jupiter to shield Earth from catastrophic meteoric bombardment. Arguing that complex life is a rare event in the universe, this compelling book magnifies the significanceAand tragedyAof species extinction. Highly recommended for all public and academic libraries.AGloria Maxwell, Penn Valley Community Coll. Lib., Kansas City
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars For THINKERS Only!!! Aug. 20 2003
By Stephen Pletko TOP 50 REVIEWER
This book has a number of good features --
(1) References: over twenty-five pages that mainly consist of recent journal articles written by respected scientists.
(2) Two 2-page introductions that summarize the entire book. These are entitled "Dead Zones of the Universe" (where Life As We Know It, LAWKI, is postulated not to exist) and "Rare Earth Factors" (18 factors that may be unique to Earth and that permit LAWKI). These provide a kind of roadmap for the first ten chapters of the book.
(3) The first ten chapters are very detailed and build-up (using both historical theories and data as well as recent new theories and data) the summary information mentioned in (2) above.
(4) The last three chapters are particularly interesting. Here we get more aquainted with the authors' Rare Earh Hypothesis (microbial life is common in the universe, but multicellular animal life is rare) and introduced to the Rare Earth Equation (which challenges the assumptions of the famous Drake equation).
(5) The honesty of the book. The authors state, "Perhaps Earth is not rare after all but is simply one variant in a nearly infinite assemblage of planets with life." In other words, they acknowledge that life as we DON'T know it may possibly exist.
In conclusion, for those thinkers who want to read a book on the cutting edge of modern scientific investigation, this book is for you!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gloomy picture for us Trekkies!! Aug. 22 2003
I both hate & love this book. I think it is a must read. Like all reviewers here, I am one of those who hopes that it's a "Star Trek" universe out there but unlike other reviewers on this board, I do not think that this book will get outdated anytime soon.
This book without trying, seems to partially reconcile the 'Creation' & 'Evolution' hypothesis. It does this by sticking to the 'Evolution' script but listing powerful arguments as to why 'Life' as we know it may be unique or at least rare. In the face of mounting evidence, perhaps the church could support this hypothesis without losing legitimacy.
The hypothesis is not built on one single argument & therein lies its strength. The book starts by making a clear distinction between microbial & animal life and concedes quickly that the former may be quite common around the universe. Animal life on the other hand, requires a fortuitous alignment of the stars and planets :)
The first concept explored in this regard is that of a 'Habitable Zone'(HZ). Off the 3 types of galaxies, only large spiral galaxies are likely to host life. The other two types are either too dense (globular galaxies) or too old (elliptical galaxies & small clusters), lacking the heavy elements necessary to sustain habitable conditions. The former is a problem of overcrowding, too much sun (literally), gravity, harmful radiation & frequent cataclysmic events (supernovae, black holes etc.). The latter would mean a world without a heated core, mostly composed of hydrogen & helium. Think of the Sun & Jupiter, what are the odds of life in these two places.
After eliminating all but spiral galaxies, the hypothesis also does the same to systems within spiral galaxies.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars NASA Will Never Like This Book! Feb. 15 2004
Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee have written a very thought-provoking book in "Rare Earth." They have, in fact, given voice to some thoughts that had occurred to me and to a lot of others quite some time ago - namely "Where is everybody?" Flying saucer enthusiasts and alien abduction aficionados aside, most of us who think about such things have wondered why no alien civilization's radio transmissions have not obviously reached planet earth by now if alien civilizations were so common. Also we are starting to wonder where life exists in our solar system outside of Earth.
When I was in my teens I eagerly kept track of every launch of a spacecraft. I dreamed of even becoming an astronomer specializing in planetary geology. But my true love was biology and the thought of a possible alien biological system was fascinating. I was soon disillusioned. First the veil of Venus was lifted and where swamps and dinosaur-like creatures roamed in science fiction was a barren acid and heat scorched version of Dante's Inferno. Mars was also found to be a volcanic version of the earth's moon, except with weather (dust storms mostly), pole caps of carbon dioxide and water ice, and a very thin atmosphere. The temperature of close to 100 degrees F. below zero did not seem promising and still does not. Thus the civilizations of Mars envisioned by Lowell disappeared into the Martian dust (as they had started to even before the first space probes). Then the moons Titan (Saturn) and Europa (Jupiter) were proposed as abodes of life, however weird, and a Martian meteorite with strange "nano-bacteria" was brought out. The latter "nano-bacteria" have become dubious at best and the moons are looking less promising by the day.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Rare Earth---Provocative but Disappointing Sept. 13 2000
By J Lazio
_Rare Earth_ is a polemic for the view that complex life, both animals and higher planets, is rare in the Milky Way Galaxy and perhaps even in the Universe. Unfortunately, it fails to provide convincing evidence for this view, is often marked by sloppy writing, and in places borders on being wrong.
As an example of the latter, the authors seem to imply that the Sun has little or no interaction with the Galaxy's spiral arms and that the inter-arm regions of a spiral galaxy have a lower stellar density than inside the spiral arms. Neither is correct. It is true that the Sun is not now located in a spiral arm. However, the Sun orbits the Galactic center, taking about 250 million years to do so. The Galaxy's spiral arms do not rotate with the stars. The Sun therefore probably passes through at least one spiral arm every orbit. Over its lifetime the Sun has made approximately 20 orbits, plenty of time to pass through multiple spiral arms. Indeed the authors seem to be unaware of a proposal that massive extinctions in the Earth's past were caused by passage of the Sun through a spiral arm.
In many places the presentation also seems muddled. If we are told that Jupiter is more than 300 times the mass of the Earth (p. 235), do we really need to be told less than three pages later that Jupiter's mass is 318 Earth masses (p. 238)?
While reading it, I kept finding myself saying, That's not right, or, But what about ....? It's truly disappointing because the title is so provocative and because we are learning so much about the formation of planets and the origin of life on the Earth. However, having read the book, I certainly would not have purchased it initially.
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Most recent customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Not Up to Snuff
OK, I am in the obvious minority with this review, but it's how I see it.
This is a work filled with broad, sweeping suppositions, yet it seems that as always the devil is in... Read more
Published on Jan. 15 2004 by William Hopke
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book
This book is somewhat difficult to read without proper background knowledge on some of these subjects. Read more
Published on March 11 2003
3.0 out of 5 stars Evaluating the wheels of a speeding train
The only reason I give this book a 3-star rating is that it is already becoming dated by the blinding speed at which exoplanetary science is developing. Read more
Published on Feb. 20 2003 by Robert Harding
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting information, in need of editing
This book contains a wealth of interesting information and I recommend it as a source to anyone interested in the subject. Read more
Published on Dec 27 2002 by Peter Kretschmar
4.0 out of 5 stars Important considerations and interesting reading
While I think that it would be fascinating if we do someday discover evidence of an inhabited planet around a distant star, I think that the authors Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee... Read more
Published on Dec 7 2002 by Matthew P. Whitehead
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic book!
In addition to arguing very convincingly for a surprising conclusion, it's one of the most lucid introductions to Astronomy, Geology, and Evolutionary Microbiology in existence. Read more
Published on Oct. 16 2002 by Carlos Cortés
3.0 out of 5 stars ... life, as we know, ...
I don't own and I haven't read the book but I agree with the authors that "... while simple, microbial life will be very widespread in the universe, complex animal or plant... Read more
Published on Sept. 26 2002 by Renato S. N. Costa
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Materialist hypothesis: Rare Earth
I greatly enjoyed reading this book. Although I am a believer in directed evolution (by a Creator), it was enjoyable to see "pure materialists" coming to the conclusion... Read more
Published on Sept. 14 2002 by Altar Boy
4.0 out of 5 stars bold proposition.
For the authors even the simplest animal life is uncommon in the universe, and intelligent life extremely rare. Read more
Published on Sept. 1 2002 by Luc REYNAERT
5.0 out of 5 stars Rare Earth
I discovered this title in a review in the Boston Sunday Globe a few years ago and decided to try reading the book. Read more
Published on March 11 2002 by Pauline J. Pate, Ph.d.
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