Book Review: Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, Adam Frank

Book Review: Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, Adam Frank

 

Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, Adam Frank

Nonfiction: Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, Adam Frank

 

Light of the Stars could possibly be described as “speculative science.” I don’t know whether that’s a legitimate literary category, but it should be. Adam Frank’s book is nonfiction, a popular science book that puts discoveries in astrophysics, geology, paleontology, climatology, and many other hard sciences into accessible language. But it also examines the possibilities of extraterrestrial intelligence, exploring the odds of other technologically advanced civilizations having existed in the universe. As Frank himself acknowledges, although the math may be sound, right now there is no proof one way or the other. But, he may be right in asserting that thousands of other technological societies must have existed, given the number of exoplanets already discovered and given the resilience of life on our own planet.

 

Frank’s Light of the Stars is quite wide ranging. He looks at the origin of life on earth. Recent discoveries indicate that the building blocks of life are quite common in the universe. Analysis of space dust shows that many of the same elements found on earth are found in similar percentages beyond our planet. The composition of our planet is far from unique. No other planet quite like earth has been discovered, but neither does it appear that earth is an outlier in the planetary family.

 

One aspect that does make earth unusual is the prevalence of oxygen. Most planets do not have as much oxygen as our planet does. This is specifically the result of life on earth. That is not to say that any form of life would by definition oxygenate a planet, but the high percentage of the gas in our atmosphere tells the story of life here. It is an interesting story, one which shows a curious give and take between planet and inhabitants. Early life developed the ability to transform sunlight and carbon dioxide into energy, with oxygen as a by-product. As oxygen levels rose in the atmosphere, the atmosphere became toxic to the very life that created it. A new form of life then developed, one that could breathe oxygen and release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. The result was a balance in the atmosphere that supported breathable air, and helped regulate temperatures as well. When natural geological processes release more carbon dioxide into the air, life responds by proliferating species that neutralize that carbon dioxide. When too much oxygen threatens to turn the planet into a fiery tinderbox, species which use oxygen flourish until the levels have abated.

 

This process, though, is neither a thoughtfully designed process nor an immediately reactive one. Over eons there is extraordinary stability which benefits life. Over the lifespan of any given species, though, there is plenty of fluctuation that can result in extinction. The very species that transformed the atmosphere into an oxygen-rich mixture were ultimately poisoned by their own success. Life survived, adapted, even benefited from this transformation. But the species that led the charge were undone by it. This is a not so subtle warning to us humans who through global warming are doing the same thing. Our technology is changing the climate in ways both predictable and unpredictable. Earth and life have survived previous warm periods, arguably flourishing with abundance and variety. However, our species was not around during those warm periods–and there is no absolute guarantee we will survive the warming period we have ourselves initiated.

 

It is a valid question, though, to ask whether ANY technologically advanced species will alter its planet almost by definition. Technology has defined our species for less than 200 years. During that time we have faced world destruction through both nuclear devastation and climate change. We are not finished with either threat, and it is entirely possible to guess that our technology could create new and different challenges to our own species even if we successfully survive the current challenges. Is it possible that the very creation of technology, like the transformation of the atmosphere through the introduction of biologically generated oxygen, may prove inimical to its creators? If so, then the likelihood of encountering other intelligent species becomes diminishingly small, if for no other reason than our own window of discovery is doomed to be limited.

 

Unfortunately, unless you accept the recent Harvard paper on the possible nature of interstellar object ʻOumuamua (the paper suggests the object may be a “solar sail”), there is simply no proof right now of any extraterrestrial technology. The absence of proof is not the proof of absence. But despite my strong hope that Frank is correct, I worry that we may not survive our own worst impulses long enough to reach out to the stars.

 

Do not allow my pessimism to turn you away from an interesting, intelligent, and engaging book. Light of the Stars is a thoughtful and fascinating look at possibilities. It is cautionary, but also hopeful. After all, if indeed there have been thousands or even tens of thousands of technological species in our universe, surely some of them survived their own destructive impulses. Whether we ever meet them or not, the possibility that there is a path through the changes we are wreaking on our planet is a promising thought.

Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth, Adam Frank

Book Review: Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the EarthAdam Frank

Book Review: About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, Adam Frank

Book Review: About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, Adam Frank

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Nonfiction Science: About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, Adam Frank

About Time reminded me of two truths about my life. The first truth has been a core part of my personality since my earliest memories. I love science. I find physics and cosmology fascinating. Adam Frank is a professor at the University of Rochester and a commentator on science and cosmology for NPR. He is known for taking deep subjects and putting connective tissue on them so that non-scientists can appreciate and relate to the astounding discoveries being announced by CERN and other high-powered labs and leaders in various fields.

 

About Time tries to do this as well. Frank looks at time in both practical and scientific terms. It is easy to forget in our always connected, always clock-aware culture that timekeeping is itself a relatively new invention. Sundials and general awareness of the passing of time go back centuries, even millennia, as natural phenomena follow rhythms set by the passing of days and seasons. As humans began agricultural pursuits, awareness of times to plant and harvest became important. People responsible for marking time’s passage also became important, as planting too early or harvesting too late could lead to catastrophe. As urbanization eventually led to manufacturing the marking of smaller increments of time became important.

 

Another often forgotten reason for the “invention” of time (or at least more accurate time-keeping means) was the need for accuracy in measuring distance. Time and distance are related, as we may vaguely remember from early algebra (rate x time = distance) and the always invigorating word problems: if Sally is on a train traveling west at 60 mph from New York and Johnny is on a train traveling east at 70 mph from Chicago, and both trains leave at the same time, when will you crumple up your homework and throw your book against the wall and burst into tears? (I have painful memories of many math classes, so my apologies for the cathartic outburst.) Much more dire than my painful memories is the fact that incorrect longitude leads directly to maritime catastrophe, and longitude is essentially a measure of time/distance from a fixed point. Accurate time keeping leads to accurate location and that leads directly to ships not sinking.

 

Travel on land also required accurate timekeeping. Railroads tied the burgeoning US together, and the need for accurate schedules led directly to the creation of time zones. Although the US led the way in this, the rest of the world quickly followed for the same logical reasons. As telegraph, telephone, radio, and television allowed vast distances to experience the same “now,” our reliance on accurate timekeeping increased.

 

I did not appreciate how grounded in the practical world Einstein’s relativity was. His job at the patent office was to evaluate patents dealing with accurate measurements of time. Swiss clocks were expected to be accurate and technology increasingly required them to be both accurate and synchronized. Einstein’s job required him to think about time and timekeeping–then at night he worked on the equations that eventually became the Theory of Relativity. Instead of time being fixed and universal, Einstein realized that time was fluid and changed depending on perspective, gravity, rate of motion, and other variables. The universe is not set to a cosmic clock. The experience of time changes as one approaches light speed, and even incremental changes are measurable. Clocks synchronized and then placed at sea level and at high altitude will eventually show different times simply because the rotation of the earth is marginally different depending on how close one is to the earth’s center. Einstein dealt with the practical aspects of measuring time. We may never know how much that practical experience influenced his thinking about the scientific aspects of time/space/relativity, but the duality of his life must have had some effect.

 

The main thrust of Frank’s book is on the Big Bang. The Big Bang theory has many problems with it. The obvious one is, “What came before?” So far there has been no adequate answer scientifically or mathematically proposed. However, no adequate replacement has yet been posited, either. Frank looks at several, including string theory and “banes,” but admits in the end that although Big Bang can no longer be considered as settled science (he offers no opinions on it’s role in television sitcom history) there is no other theory ready to take its place.

 

I started this review by noting that About Time reminded me of two truths about my life. The first was of my love for and fascination with science. Frank is a terrific writer. The book is full of interesting anecdotes, scientific history, and changes in culture prompted by science as well as changes in science prompted by culture. About Time reminded me of a second truth as well: I am not a scientist. I will confess, this is not an easy book to read. I was often lost and confused, which I fear is much more reflective upon the reader than on the writer. If you have a strong background and interest in science, especially in astrophysics and cosmology, then this is a terrific book. If you struggle with occasional terrifying flashbacks of 8th grade algebra, then this may not be the best addition to your library. An extremely adept younger reader would find it challenging and a great read, so if you have a young person interested in a career in the sciences, then About Time might be just in time to push her or him in that direction.

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Book Review: About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, Adam Frank