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Book Review: Strange New Worlds: The Search For Alien Planets And Life Beyond Our Solar System by Ray Jayawardhana

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Ok, let me get this out of the way: Ray Jayawardhana, the author of the uber-long subtitled Strange New Worlds: The Search For Alien Planets An Life Beyond Our Solar System, recently released from Princeton University Press, is not a great wordsmith. In short, no one is going to mix up his prose stylings, in this 288 page book, with the ruminative poesy of a Loren Eiseley, the enthused didacticism of a Carl Sagan, nor the wonderfully metaphoric Stephen Jay Gould, for here is a typical sample of his writing; indeed, the last sample, as it is the final paragraph in the book, from page 227:

However it arrives, the first definitive evidence of life- even of primitive life- elsewhere will mark a revolution in science, perhaps only rivaled by Copernicus’s heliocentric theory that dislodged the Earth from the center of the universe or Darwin’s discovery of evolution that suggested all species on our planet, including humans, descended from common ancestors. If life can spring up on two planets independently, why not on a thousand, or even a million, others? The implications of finding out for sure that ours isn’t the only inhabited world are nothing short of astounding: it will trigger paradigm shifts not only in science but also in many other human endeavors, from the arts to religion. We will see ourselves differently. That dramatic moment is no longer a remote possibility: it may well occur in our lifetime, if not during the next decade.

Okay, as I stated, not sterling prose. The refried tropes are all there, from the way life on earth will supposedly be altered to this being an epochal event in human culture, etc. There are the clichés- “revolution in science,” “the implications,” “we will see ourselves differently,” etc. Then there is the last sentence- a statement of the obvious that recapitulates much of the book’s penchant for same.

But, then there is the very claim that such a discovery will be earth-shattering. I doubt it, as I once argued in an essay I wrote, nearly a decade ago:

It will occur with little notice if it happens during a major international crisis. It will not be, exactly, back on page 47 of the newspapers- or whatever mode of morning information-getting we use. It will be a moderately accoladed story when it 1st breaks. It will not be quite as important as the new lover of the starlet whose tryst with her makes all the headlines. But, it will be accorded more space than many of the anonymous murders or rapes of the day. But, on this day- perhaps in a few centuries, or even a few decades- the ‘known’ place of Mankind in the scheme of things will forever be sundered.

Note that I also used the sundering of reality ideal, but more realistically. Yes, in the long term, any such discovery of life on another heavenly body, will rank there with the moon landing and Columbus’s discovery of the New World, but, unless life elsewhere makes itself known by parking over the U.N. Building or White House, in the short term, it will be a curio. Religions and nations will not crumble; in fact, the latest Lady Gaga video or “scandal” will get more airplay- and it’s interesting to note that Lady Gaga wasn’t even around when my essay first hit the Internet, and will likely long be forgotten by the time a Second Earth is found, even if within the next decade. Many scientists live in such insular bubbles that they are woefully out of touch with the real world conditions and idiotic concerns of normal human beings. Not that I’m defending the common man’s ignorance, just acknowledging it. Jayawardhana rarely does.

Having written all this, let me add that Strange New Worlds is not a bad book, just not an epochal one. It is a solid history of one of science’s most recent sagas. It uncovers some inside dope on the wrangling behind the scenes in the battle to find the first exoplanet (i.e.- extrasolar planet, or planet not revolving about our sun), and it explains the meanings and relevance of terms and ideas, such as Hot Jupiters and Super Earths, among others. And this is the book’s strength. Likely, in a decade or so, much of this information will be history, but that’s the consequence of life in such a field.

Jayawardhana seems to be a creature of habit, and the biggest habit that the book reveals is his conservative biases (scientifically, not politically), such as his lack of ability to contemplate that life, and even complex life, could exist in anything but a liquid-based form (preferably water). This bias reveals itself most deeply in Chapter 6, “Blurring Boundaries: Neither Stars Nor Planets,” wherein he takes on the ridiculous 2006 demotion of Pluto from being the 9th planet to being just one of many “dwarf planets” in the solar system.

Linguistically, logically, and even scientifically, the demotion was based upon the lack of desire of many scientists to acknowledge that the outer Kuiper Belt region of the solar system may contain a dozen or more “ice planets” as large or larger than Pluto. He goes into the International Astronomical Union’s song and dance routine, but never addresses the obvious, that the real reason Pluto was demoted was because “ice,” for some reason, does not seem to be as respectable a building block for planets as are rocks and gases. Nor does he, like most other astronomers, address the absurdity that a “dwarf planet” is, by definition, a planet, just as a dwarf tree is still a tree, a dwarf horse is still a horse, and a dwarf human is still a human. This lack of pattern recognition ability is not a good quality for any scientist to hold, and it rears its head, again, when Jayawardhana addresses others’ arguments against life on certain planet types, or planets outside believed habitable zones around stars.

The odd thing is that the book’s strength – its recounting of the history of this subject – shows, again and again, that scientific assumptions and biases beforehand, in such speculative matters, are almost always outstripped by the accumulated evidence – be it on the earth being at the center of the cosmos, how the moon formed, how planets form, whether or not planets can survive a supernova, and so on. Given that history, Jayawardhana should be boldly predicting that life will be found not only on Super Earths and worlds within habitable zones, but on all sorts of planets, of all forms and sizes, including ones with highly elliptical orbits, non-hydrogen based liquids, and on many other conditions we not only do not think it can exist on but on those we cannot even comprehend, as of this time, just as a Hot Jupiter orbiting closer to its star than Mercury was unexpected.

Unfortunately, that is not the sort of writer nor scientist he is. Fortunately, he did choose the right subject matter for a book, for even the safest approach still yields an interesting read. Given all the dreck that is published these days, and with apologies to icy dwarf planets, that’s nothing to belittle.

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