Five billion years of solitude

There is a school of thought among science writers that writing about the scientists makes them seem more human and therefore their science more relevant. I don’t quite agree. What if the scientist is an asshole, like Tycho Brahe? There must be better ways to relate the significance of scientific achievements.

Anyway, that was the approach in Five Billion Years of Solitude by Lee Billings. Billings’ seems to rely on scientists who are willing to sit down and discuss with him at length so I got the sense I wasn’t getting the whole story. And he gets a little too personal at times. I wonder if the climate scientist he met for drink was embarrassed by how many times Billing mentioned he was sipping from his margarita. He devotes an entire chapter to an evening he spent prying into the personal life of a young female physicist. Maybe I was the only one creeped out by it.

His exploration of the search for extraterrestrial life revolves around the current boom in exoplanet discovery. The idea being that the more planets we find, the more we find an earth like one, the greater chance of discovering life. This hinges on the idea that life must exist only in earth like places: planets about our size and composition at an appropriate distance from its sun. Billing ignores that the planetary “habitable zone” might  be controversial or unverified. He also says nothing about looking for signs life in our solar system (Mars, Europa, and Titan being the main candidates) and what it might tell us about the habitability of Earthlike planets.

The strongest part of the book deals with the technical challenges of terrestrial planet finding. It also captures the glum mood among astrophysicists in the face of reduced budgets, the lack of public interest in expensive space exploration, and the uncertain promise of private space exploration.

There are better books about the search for extraterrestrial life. Try The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies or What Does a Martian Look Like? by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart.

Ready for some photosynthesis

The weather this afternoon was just great, finally.  We’re still about two weeks away from leaves on trees. In the meantime, Iowa remains in its mode of early spring bleakness: brown lawns, leafless trees, bare black soil. The fun thing about Iowa is that, around mid April, everything will green up at once. Which makes me wonder if there is a sudden boost to the oxygen content of the local atmosphere. My guess is the atmosphere mixes pretty well throughout the year. After all, we’re still breathing.

Writing or lack thereof

I haven’t been writing here because I’ve been writing for a creative writing workshop. I hope to share some stuff later.

I don’t write creative fiction very often, and have a few things kicking around, including some that have appeared here. It’s interesting to hear others’ opinions about it and to get constructive feedback. My class is very encouraging.

I’ve upgraded WordPress to 3.8 and am trying out the new default theme. It’s okay. I didn’t meet my goal this year of designing my own theme.

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