From Dying Stars to the Birth of Life – Book Review

Title: From Dying Stars to the Birth of Life: The New Science of Astrobiology and the Search for Life in the Universe
Publisher : Nottingham University Press
Author: Jerry L Cranford
ISBN : 978-1-907284-79-3
Price: £24.99 [237 pages hardcover]

Subtitled as “The new science of astrobiology and the search for life in the universe”, this is an abundantly illustrated book that attempts to cover the immensity of the universe and the minuteness of a living cell. The author establishes at the outset that he is not an astronomer. A now retired professor with years of experience in psychology and “brain sciences”, he brings his expertise of academia and research to his childhood passion of astronomy.

Astrobiology is a relatively new and still developing interdisciplinary field that studies origin and evolution of life throughout the universe. This book attempts to deals with some of the most poignant questions of Astrobiology that have faced humanity from the beginning. Where did life come from? What does it mean to be alive? Are we alone in the universe?  So dramatic are the developments in science and technology over the last half century that for the first time in human history tangible experiments can now be performed that have the potential to answer them.

The first half of the book takes the reader from the Big Bang to the emergence of stars, galaxies, and eventually supernovae that generate the fundamental elements to the complex compounds necessary for the development of life.  I found chapters 3 and 4 that described the constituent parts of living cells and how they work particularly interesting.

The final chapter is more rewarding than the title “Some final thoughts from the author” may at first suggest. In it the author turns to the question of why, in the technologically rich 21st century, science has been unable to provide a definitive answer to Fermi’s paradox – given that the universe is old and big enough to have nurtured life elsewhere than just that on Earth, why is it that life on Earth is the only one for which evidence exists?

Written in a somewhat unusual style, it has a freshness that readers new to the field may find attractive. The author jumps about between using the first and third person, variously talking about himself as “I”, “we” and “the author”.  He also uses “the present author” or “the present book” — why not simply “the author” or “the book”?    Initially oddities like these and others are a distraction, but they are relatively easy to get used to.

In the preface the author acknowledges support from many, including Seth Shostak from the SETI institute. Additional input like that from other specialists e.g. cosmologists, evolutionary biologists or planetary astronomers would perhaps have introduced a greater authority to the final product.

Many of the illustrations are sourced from the public domain, a welcome trend which I hope will flourish. This book lacked the typical highly formal scientific approach that an astronomer would have taken.  The author’s highly personal approach and an abundance of genuine passion for this subject is his unique contribution in this book.  If you wondered what astrobiology is all about, this detailed and enthusiastic review from a dedicated amateur is a good starting point to the current state of the subject.

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