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An Astrophysical Approach to Our Environmental Crisis

LIGHT OF THE STARS
Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth
By Adam Frank
262 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $26.95.

Near the beginning of his engaging and accessible book “Light of the Stars,” Adam Frank strikes a familiar environmental alarm bell: “It’s like we’ve been given the keys to the planet. Now we’re ready to drive it off a cliff.” Frank’s interesting new idea is to combine a history of climate change on Earth with recent astronomical data indicating the likelihood of a vast number of habitable planets in the universe, to suggest that we can strengthen our resolve to kick our bad environmental habits by viewing our terrestrial civilization from a cosmic perspective. For example, he cites evidence that Mars once had liquid water and a thick atmosphere — friendly conditions for life. Apparently, climates can drastically change over time.

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An astrophysicist at the University of Rochester and a founder of the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture, Frank argues that we earthlings should adopt a new narrative of our history and future. Rather than just continuing to procreate and exploit our capacities and resources on Earth, we should recognize that we and our planet are evolving together. Our planet might be viewed as a single living organism, coined Gaia by the scientist and futurist James Lovelock. We have entered a new geological age, what biologists call the Anthropocene, in which we, Homo sapiens, are altering the planet, and our survival depends on understanding this symbiosis. Frank asks: Have other civilizations elsewhere in the universe, evolving through their corresponding Anthropocenes, managed to survive? And by what strategy? Of course, we don’t know the answer to these questions, as we have not yet seen evidence of such civilizations beyond our own planet, and we may well not anytime soon. (“Soon,” here, is measured in tens of thousands of years.)

“Light of the Stars” traverses a wide terrain of geological, biological and astronomical science, with emphasis on the history of terrestrial climate change and the factors causing those changes, and includes portraits of such scientists as Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, Lynn Margulis and others. Frank enlivens the text with his passion, opinions and even some of his own projections of our possible fates. He is also a good storyteller. We see the great physicist Enrico Fermi and several of his colleagues walking to lunch across the campus of the Los Alamos National Laboratory one warm summer day in 1950, wending their way along a “path lined by pine trees and juniper.” In the middle of lunch, Fermi asks the question: “But where are they?,” they being the extraterrestrials. If there are so many other life-forms out there in the cosmos, why haven’t we seen any of them? Could it be that such civilizations destroy themselves (by nuclear war or climate devastation) after only a few thousand years?

The book is divided into two parts. One is a review of environmental science and a history of climate change on Earth. The other concerns the new field of astrobiology, with results from the Kepler satellite, launched in 2009 with the specific mission of looking for undiscovered solar systems, but which also allowed researchers to identify which of those exoplanets were “habitable-zone planets” — those the right distance from their central stars to have liquid water. Here we learn, for example, that roughly 20 percent of all stars have habitable planets and that the universe is full of “super-Earths,” planets with masses that fall somewhere between the smaller, rocky Earth and the gaseous and icy Neptune.

Although both parts are interesting, I don’t quite agree with Frank’s overarching thesis that they are linked components of the same story. Isn’t the imperative to halt our possibly fatal march to annihilation via human-made environmental destruction the same regardless of extraterrestrial life? We don’t need membership in the galactic empire to understand the urgency of our situation here on Earth.

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