Alone in the universe

If the reader of Five Billion Years of Solitude does not surmise the argument of the book from the title, then certainly the first chapters do. Astronomer Frank Drake, now in his eighties, reminisces about the effort to identify extraterrestrial life. The heyday of funding for larger and larger telescopes and for multiple space probes called TPFs (Terrestrial Planter Finders) is over, as may be the whole enthusiasm for the search that was once reflected in the SETI project. Increasingly, the math was insurmountable: even an unambiguous radio signal to a viable exo-planet would take a minimum of a thousand years to travel, let alone another thousand years to return, assuming that it was targeted just so and remained unimpeded. Distance is demonstrably the telling factor now that all potential near-space possibilities have been disproved. “So you think we’re stuck in the solar system?” asks the author of Drake. “Yeah, I think so,” Drake replies somberly.

Author Lee Billings’ intriguing account follows more than dry astrophysics but perceptibly highlights the personal angles to the larger scientific inquiries. This mix presents science popularization at its best. Here is movement founder Frank Drake, reluctant optimist, who identified the longevity formula that posits the narrow window of exo-planet discovery by Earth-bound projects. Here are European and American astronomers competing to reveal the latest potential exo-planet candidates, only to cast unfriendly doubts on the work of one another. Billings usefully reviews the history of interest in outer space; taking research on atmospheres, chemistry, and astrophysics he applies them to Earth, demonstrating one of the ironic benefits of presumably abstract science: Understanding what happens to celestial bodies is engagingly relevant to what happens on Earth, to what we call Nature.

In a chapter titled “The Big Picture,” the author looks at what created ancient Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Plateau, and the enormous gas-bearing black shale of the Marcellus formation. Here the description under-weaves the observations of sedimentary geologist Mike Arthur of Penn State University, and culminates in the science of climate change and what atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen called the Anthropocene era. Arthur concludes that all of the gas will inevitably be extracted and burned, perhaps in twenty years, at enormous peril to the very sustainability of human existence, notes Billings. On the analogy of a 24-hour clock, the planet is only a second away from midnight.

Billings also talks to Jim Kasting of Penn State, “specializing in the evolution of Earth’s atmosphere and climate.” Kasting’s models of Venus have bridged explanatory models of Earth climate change. Identification of planet habitability and carbon cycles (Kasting’s specialties) have special relevance to exo-planet signatures, and James Lovelock’s Gaia theory is discussed, with its emphasis on fundamental life as basically cyanobacteria preceding and shaping habitability. Kasting is blunt in conversation”

It’s not just the climate. … We’re squandering Earth’s resources. We’re doing terrible things to biodiversity. I have no doubt we’re living in the midst of another mass extinction of our own making.

But as with many astronomy-oriented scientists, Kasting hopes for the equivalent of a miracle, namely, building a TPF and finding in far-away space what will convince humanity to stop and “appreciate our own planet.”

In the concluding chapters of the book, Billings looks at the impact of the 1990’s Hubble telescope effort, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program, the 2000’s plummet in funding, a brief note on the passionate Carl Sagan, and the meteoric rise of exo-planet research advocate Sara Seager. Seager’s life story could demand its own book, but her love of nature, wilderness, and the outdoors, combined with expertise in exo-planet studies closes Billings’ informative narrative on a humane touch.

Even for the non-scientist, and especially for that reader, Five Billion Years of Solitude is instructive. It underscores the paradox of knowledge versus helplessness, and the profound solitude of human beings on a fragile planet in a vast and ultimately baffling universe. The famous 1990 Voyager photograph of Earth as a “blue marble,” which showed the necessary interdependence of all sentient beings on the planet, ironically also highlighted the stark reality of our uniqueness and solitude as a species and as individuals.