STO Book Reviews

Planetary Dreams book cover Planetary Dreams
The Quest to Discover Life Beyond Earth
Robert Shapiro

John Wiley & Sons
U.S. distribution by Trafalgar Square

Paperback - 320 pages
6 x 9
ISBN: 0-47-140735-6
This Robert Shapiro is a biochemist who demonstrates in Planetary Dreams the art of pop science. His imaginative work is likely to be satisfying to space buffs the way the late Carl Sagan's books were.

The profound subject of this book is what scientists call "exobiology." Its question is why the search for alien life proceeds in spurts.

Shapiro recalls that two biology labs were landed on Mars back in 1976, but there has been little follow-through since from the point of view of exobiologists. He notes that the numerous spacecraft now planned and headed for Mars are oriented toward geology research.

The book recalls imaginary lunar civilizations from science fiction, and various philosophical views of either the fertility or the barrenness of the Universe. The author is convinced that questions won't be resolved until humans begin colonizing Outer Space.

Shapiro says that biological research -- a search for life -- is needed to stir up public excitement about space exploration. He sees that rocks named Yogi still are boring rocks.

To make his technical topic more accessible, Shapiro makes up a fanciful institution he calls the Museum of the Cosmos, a building that holds models of the Universe at different degrees of magnification. From there, the reader journeys into inner space to view the intricate life of a single cell, and learn why its origin from simple chemical mixtures is a deep mystery.

Shapiro's entertaining narratives describe the wide-ranging biochemical environments of the Solar System and the research flights that might investigate those far-flung places. He guides the reader on a tour of likely life sites, from ice oceans on Jupiter's airless moons to underground hot springs on Mars.

The author brings forth three contrasting views of how life may have started:
  • through Divine Creation
  • by a highly unlikely stroke of luck
  • by an inevitable process of natural law he calls the Life Principle.
The book fictionalizes a dinner debate among proponents of each of these schools. The Life Principle group holds that life formed in many places throughout the universe. The others believe Earth life is unique.

Shapiro is a professor of chemistry specializing in DNA and RNA at New York University. He has written three other books -- Life Beyond Earth, Origins, and The Human Blueprint. Planetary Dreams includes several color photos.

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