It’s taken me a disgracefully long time to finish the review copy of Lee Billings’s Five Billion Years of Solitude I was sent back in the fall, mostly because I didn’t read anything not immediately related to the book-in-progress for most of November and all of December. Which is to say, the long delay is not in any way a reflection of the quality of this book, which is excellent.
The title comes from the observation that the span from when life arose on Earth to the distant future when the expanding Sun will swallow the planet entirely is around five billion years. The span when the planet is actually hospitable to life may be much shorter than that, though, which may play into the fact that we have yet to unambiguously detect any signs of life anywhere but here on Earth (claims by the colorful characters on Ancient Aliens notwithstanding). The book is a look at the science of all this: the interaction of planetary science and biology, the various attempts to detect extraterrestrial life, and so on. It mixes detailed profiles of some individual scientists with clear summaries of the science involved in detecting planets, determining whether they’d be habitable, and trying to sort out the signatures of life.
This could be an incredibly depressing story, and in some ways it is– there’s a lot of stuff that demonstrates both our piddling insignificance in the grand scheme of things and the essential fragility of life as we know it. And the sections about our bumbling public policy regarding the funding of basic science research will make you want to slap a legislator if you don’t already. Despite that, though, Billings keeps it from being a hard slog to read, which is a great testament to the clarity of his writing and storytelling. Even when he’s describing public policy debacles that you know can’t end well, the story is told compellingly enough to keep you reading rather than, you know, tossing the book aside in favor of something with featuring characters with more potential to be redeemed, like a George R. R. Martin novel.
The science is a little outside my field of expertise, so I can’t completely vouch for its accuracy. It fits well with what I know, though, and more importantly, avoids the trap of sensationalism in either direction. Given the subject matter, that’s a pretty significant achievement– navigating between the ecstasy of “There are planets everywhere!” and the despair of “We’re all gonna die!” is no small feat. Billings provides all the necessary caveats, though, without letting them bog the story down.
If you’re interested in a concise, compelling overview of the current state of our understanding of the limits of life in the universe, this is a terrific read. I’m taking my copy to the office to push on my colleagues who teach an elective course on Astrobiology, and really, if I like it enough to be the kind of jerk who throws copies at people who know more about the subject matter than I do, well, that’s saying something.
(Full disclosure: In addition to getting this for free, I know Lee a tiny bit via social media, and his time at Seed, back when they ran ScienceBlogs.)