Five Billion Years of Solitude
The Search for Life Among the Stars
By Lee Billings
(Current Hardcover, Hardcover, 9781617230066, 304pp.)
Publication Date: October 3, 2013
Enter your zip code below to find indies closest to you.
An intimate history of Earth and the quest for life beyond the solar system
For 4.6 billion years our living planet has been alone in a vast and silent universe. But soon, Earth's isolation could come to an end. Over the past two decades, astronomers have discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars. Some of these exoplanets may be mirror images of our own world. And more are being found all the time.
Yet as the pace of discovery quickens, an answer to the universe's greatest riddle still remains just out of reach: Is the great silence and emptiness of the cosmos a sign that we and our world are somehow singular, special, and profoundly alone, or does it just mean that we’re looking for life in all the wrong places? As star-gazing scientists come closer to learning the truth, their insights are proving ever more crucial to understanding life’s intricate mysteries and possibilities right here on Earth.
Science journalist Lee Billings explores the past and future of the "exoplanet boom" through in-depth reporting and interviews with the astronomers and
planetary scientists at its forefront. He recounts the stories behind their world-changing discoveries and captures the pivotal moments that drove them forward in their historic search for the first habitable planets beyond our solar system. Billings brings readers close to a wide range of fascinating characters, such as:
FRANK DRAKE, a pioneer who has used the world’s greatest radio telescopes to conduct the first searches for extraterrestrial intelligence and to transmit a message to the stars so powerful that it briefly outshone our Sun.
JIM KASTING, a mild-mannered former NASA scientist whose research into the Earth’s atmosphere and climate reveals the deepest foundations of life on our planet, foretells the end of life on Earth in the distant future, and guides the planet hunters in their search for alien life.
SARA SEAGER, a visionary and iron-willed MIT professor who dreams of escaping the solar system and building the giant space telescopes required to discover and study life-bearing planets around hundreds of the Sun’s neighboring stars.
Through these and other captivating tales, Billings traces the triumphs, tragedies, and betrayals of the extraordinary men and women seeking life among the stars. In spite of insufficient funding, clashing opinions, and the failings of some of our world’s most prominent and powerful scientific organizations, these planet hunters will not rest until they find the meaning of life in the infinite depths of space. Billings emphasizes that the heroic quest for other Earth-like planets is not only a scientific pursuit, but also a reflection of our own culture’s timeless hopes and fears.
Lee Billings is a science journalist whose work has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, and Scientific American. He lives in New York. This is his first book.
“Graceful... the best book I have read about exoplanets, and one of the few whose language approaches the grandeur of a quest that is practically as old as our genes."
—New York Times Book Review
“Will leave readers who aren’t rocket scientists slack-jawed”
—New York Times “Newly Released” Column
“Lee Billings, an American science journalist, has written a definitive guide to astronomy’s hottest field.”
“This book is sweeping in scope, from the creation of the coal belts in Pennsylvania to the moving details of a single canoe trip across the Canadian wilderness. In these juxtapositions, Billings performs a brilliant sleight of hand…the ending is a poignant reminder that humankind may yet find a way to the stars, but people — the ones we know, the ones we love, the ones we lose — are our entire history and our full universe.”
—The Washington Post
"...the search for Earth-like worlds orbiting distant stars is just a step in the age-old quest to learn whether or not we are alone in the universe. In his compelling, wide-ranging survey, Billings steps back to look at this broader picture, largely through richly textured portraits of some of the giants of the field...[an] extraordinary tale of scientific discovery."
“Science writer Lee Billings deftly captures both behind-the-scenes ructions and landmark discoveries in his tour of this multidisciplinary field, its history and its players. The seamlessly interwoven narrative is strong on big personalities, from astronomer Frank Drake, a pioneer of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) whose work is now overshadowed by glamorous finds in exoplanetary science, to astrophysicist Sara Seager, a scintillating star in that very field.”
– Nature journal
“Fascinating… A great outline of the subject, bringing what's often treated as science fiction down to Earth where it can be understood.”
“Exoplanet detection is space science’s hottest field, one which science writer Billings surveys here with exceptional clarity while peering over the shoulders of the planet hunters’ leading pioneers…a fascinating and informative read for both casual and serious astronomy buffs.”
“An up-to-date synopsis of the search for life elsewhere and the key people behind it.”
– NPR’s 13.7 blog
“Readers will find [Five Billion Years of Solitude] incredibly engaging…Billings has created a book that is not only entertaining, but educational as well.”
– Universe Today
“Billings uses deft descriptions and dazzling wordplay.”
– Inside Science
“In this elegant book, Billings writes with energy and brilliance about a big question, possibly the biggest of all: are we all alone in the universe or are there other forms of life out there somewhere? His portraits of the scientists in pursuit of answers to this timeless question are realized through the sharpest lens.”
—RICHARD PRESTON, author of THE HOT ZONE and THE WILD TREES
“Lee Billings has done something remarkable. He has not just written a deeply-researched account of the search for life beyond our solar system. He’s also captured the spirit of the search—the science-fiction-fueled dreams, the joy of discovering planets around other suns, the melancholy realization that our species may not have the long-range focus to complete this mission. The result is a beautiful, richly detailed study of what it means to be alone—for now—in the universe.”
—CARL ZIMMER, author of A PLANET OF VIRUSES and EVOLUTION
“Five Billion Years of Solitude is ‘awesome’ in that term’s strictest sense. This mind-blowing book has ideas like a greenhouse has orchids. Yet, at its somber core, this is an engaged meditation on intelligence in the universe—not just our intelligence, but anybody’s, anywhere, at any time.”
—BRUCE STERLING, author of SCHISMATRIX and VISIONARY IN RESIDENCE
“Billings imbues the quest for other Earths and other technological civilizations with an intimate immediacy that makes our planet and our lives seem all the more precious. From unruly telescopes to political machinations, from environmental degradation to broken friendships, he has seamlessly crafted a portrait that is not only about our looking to the stars but also the place from which we gaze.”
—CHRISTOPHER COKINOS, author of THE FALLEN SKY and HOPE IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS
“Highly readable and richly contextual, Five Billion Years of Solitude illuminates the personalities behind an adventure of astronomical exploration in which thousands of worlds are being discovered almost overnight.”
—TIMOTHY FERRIS, author of COMING OF AGE IN THE MILKY WAY and THE SCIENCE OF LIBERTY
“To fully appreciate the quest to discover other Earths, you have to learn to understand this one afresh—not only its magnificent almost-five-billion-year history, but also its bureaucratic muddles, its petty rivalries, its personal triumphs and tragedies, and its endless potential for poetry. Lee Billings does all that, brilliantly.”
—OLIVER MORTON, author of EATING THE SUN and MAPPING MARS
“In Five Billion Years of Solitude…Billings communicates scientific and technical detail fluently, and there is much here to please any geek who does not already know how, say, it is possible to see a distant planet next to a star that outshines it as an exploding nuclear bomb does an unlit match.”
“Astrobiology, the study of alien life, has been a dream—until now. Suddenly the detection of life on other planets no longer seems quite so peculiar. Lee Billings explains how the impossible dream became possible after all.”
—The Economist “Books of the year”
“The search for new life in the universe has yet to yield results, but this examination of exoplanet hunters reveals why and how deeply we need to believe aliens are out there.”
“Is there anybody else out there? The question is at the core of journalist Lee Billings’s meditation on the uncertain future of humanity and the search for habitable worlds and cognizant beings beyond our 4.5 billion-year-old planet. With Earth’s hospitality to humans predicted to expire in half a billion years, the race is on.”