A Review of Emotive Science Journalism: Five Billion Years of Solitude

Earth is almost five billion years old. Five. Billion. Years. As humans, we can rattle off numbers like that, but fully comprehending that length of time is almost impossible.

We didn’t really start looking up and wondering if we’re alone until relatively recently. After all, humans didn’t exist on Earth until relatively recently. Since then, however, the night sky has captivated us. Early science fiction writers used paper to bring imagination to life, but it wasn’t until the last 60 – 70 years that science put the discovery of alien life within our civilization’s grasp.

Five Billion Years of SolitudeFrom SETI to enormous telescopes with sunshades, Lee Billings describes the various ways scientists are endeavoring to discover life on other planets.  He’s thorough and makes complicated information easy to consume for mainstream readers.

What struck me as I made my way through the pages, however, wasn’t the wealth of knowledge Billings acquired and effectively communicates, but the connections he makes with those he interviews. I was particularly taken with his recounting of an epic Star Wars lightsaber battle with Dr. Sara Seager’s two young sons while she finished a few chores between his questions.

His dedication to get the stories, the real stories, of those he interviews bleeds through the pages. He excels at humanizing the endeavors behind the science – this book isn’t just a story of scientists but of people working together toward a common goal, even if they’re going about it in different ways.

Several lines from the book have stuck with me:

“The roar of rockets signaled a future where humanity’s fortunes would be found beyond Earth’s cradle.”
(Chapter 7: Out of Equilibrium, p.152)

What. A. Sentence.

“As was so typical of so many government projects begun during Bush’s administration, the only thing Constellation seemed to excel at was transferring billions of dollars of public, federal money into the coffers of well-connected private contractors who too often delivered precious little in return.”
(Chapter 8: Aberrations of the Light, p. 196)

Snarkety snark, snark. I love it.

“There are a lot of people the attitude that it’s fine to study astrophysics, the Big Bang, the evolution of galaxies, and the evolution of dust disks around stars. But don’t ask whether the disks make planets. Don’t wonder whether the planets make things that can hop and crawl around. Because that’s somehow beneath our dignity, to think about things that might have anything to do with subjects as complicated as biology and life.”
(Quoting Wesley Traub of JPL, Chapter 9: The Order of the Null, p.222)

Traub describes the resentment many astronomers leveled toward NASA after the organization made a major decision without consulting its various entities. Even scientists experience drama in the workplace. I find that hilarious, in a cringe-worthy way.

Another note: Sara Seager sounds like one hell of a woman. I’ve added her to my list of heros.

Onto my next book: The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry. I’m determined to stick to my  New Year’s resolution. Make sure to stop by next week for that review!

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