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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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Product Description

From Amazon

"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.

Review

"...likely to cause a revolution in thinking..."
The New York Times

"...[the book] has hit the world of astrobiologists like a killer asteroid..."
Newsday (New York)

"...a sobering and valuable perspective..."
Science

"...a startling new hypothesis..."
Library Journal

"...Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee offer a powerful argument..."
The Economist
"...provocative, significant, and sweeping..."
Northwest Science & Technology

"...a stellar example of clear writing..."
American Scientist

From the Inside Flap

Maybe we really are alone.

That's the thought-provoking conclusion of Rare Earth, a book that is certain to have far-reaching impact in the consideration of our place in the cosmos.

While it is widely believed that complex life is common, even widespread, throughout the billions of stars and galaxies of our Universe, astrobiologists Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee argue that advanced life may, in fact, be very rare, perhaps even unique.

Ever since Carl Sagan and Frank Drake announced that extraterrestrial civilizations must number in the millions, the search for life in our galaxy has accelerated. But in this brilliant and carefully argued book, Ward and Brownlee question underlying assumptions of Sagan and Drake's model, and take us on a search for life that reaches from volcanic hot springs on our ocean floors to the frosty face of Europa, Jupiter's icy moon. In the process, we learn that while microbial life may well be more prevalent throughout the Universe than previously believed, the conditions necessary for the evolution and survival of higher life---and here the authors consider everything from DNA to plate tectonics to the role of our Moon---are so complex and precarious that they are unlikely to arise in many other places, if at all.

Insightful, well-written, and at the cutting edge of modern scientific investigation, Rare Earth will fascinate anyone interested in the possibility of life elsewhere in the Universe, and offers a fresh perspective on life at home which, if the authors are right, is even more precious than we may ever have imagined. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Peter D. Ward is Professor of Geological Sciences and Curator of Paleontology at the University of Washington in Seattle. His previous books include Time Machines and The Call of Distant Mammoths, The End of Evolution and On Methuselah's Trail.

A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Donald Brownlee is Professor of Astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle. He has been a member of numerous important NASA teams, and specializes in the study of the solar system's origin, comets and meteorites, and the underlying subject of this book, astrobiology. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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