Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life beyond Our Solar System

Ray Jayawardhana, Author
Ray Jayawardhana, Princeton Univ., $24.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-691-14254-8
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Popular astrophysicist Jayawardhana (Star Factories) suggests that mankind may be on the brink of a new scientific revolution. In the last two decades, "after millennia of musings and a century of false claims, astronomers have finally found definitive evidence of planets around stars other than the Sun." Within our lifetime, the author argues, scientists may discover the existence of life on one or more of these celestial bodies. He takes the reader on a four-century-long scientific quest to discover our place in the universe, beginning with the Copernican hypothesis and Galileo's discovery of four of Jupiter's moons. More recently, astronomer Debra Fischer's discovery of the existence of three planets orbiting a pair of twin stars widened the field of possibilities. While the criteria for the presence of life are stringent indeed, there are countless new possibilities, and Jayawardhana reviews technological advances from Galileo's primitive telescope to the Hubble, and the development of computerized adaptive optics, that allow today's astronomers to better probe the universe. The author also introduces the new science of astrobiology, which uses spectral analysis to seek evidence of life. An exciting, highly readable glimpse into a discovery that could have broad scientific and cultural implications. (Feb.)
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