Book Review: Science, Society, and the Search for Life in the Universe

Science, Society, and the Search for Life in the UniverseWhere is our search for life taking us? Or, even simpler, why are we searching? Bruce Jakosky in his book Science, Society and the Search for Life in the Universe considers these questions and many others. However, he shows that searching for answers is almost as difficult as the search itself for life off of Earth.

Astrobiology, in various guises, is taking over many space agendas. Mars beckons and Europa positively gleams, while we find planets popping up all around nearby stars. There is great excitement and debate for finding other life and other intelligent life. Pursuing answers is thus a significant or near total reason for many space missions. But are we prepared for whatever we may find, no matter how exciting?

As Jakosky says in his book, satisfying a need for excitement is neither a satisfactory or sufficient reason to explore for life in the universe. Acknowledging this, he goes on to admit that there doesn’t appear to be any one single rationale to mandate the effort expended upon astrobiology. This is the conundrum that he places squarely in front of the reader. It’s as if Jakosky’s written one too many proposals for scientific research that all demand an answer for the question about other life, yet none demonstrate a reason for the requirement. Therefore, as he says, though experiments may identify if life exists on surfaces other than Earth, there’s no surity that such an experiment is a good thing. Nevertheless, being like any good proposal writer, he prepares the answeres being looked for. And being a good researcher, he wonders where the answers may lead us.

Given this perplexing situation , it is no wonder that Jakosky’s book leans more toward philosophical questioning. There’s little information on previous experiments or results on astrobiology. For the most part they support the hypothesis that any answer will be very difficult. And given that his target audience is a well educated individual who’s already dabbled with such issues of space and basic research, he uses more advanced words than seen in the average broadsheet newspaper. With these, he presents his perspective from a researcher or principal investigator’s viewpoint of a novel, near holistic field of scientific analysis. His perspective is interesting but it leaves many more questions at the end of the book than at the beginning.

Part of the challenge with discussing the search for life is, as Jakosky says, there’s been little consensus built on what to do and where to go. This lack of consensus is apparent in the book’s format. Chapter titles are mostly questions. Though each chapter relates to astrobiology, their viewpoints are very dissimilar. This jumping around makes me wonder what Jakosky’s goal was in writing his book. He does state in the introduction that he wants to promote discussion amongst scientists, students and the general public. This is a very large cross section of society, so there’s no surprise that the books’ direction sometimes drifts. Further, a book, being a passive media, may end up sitting unread even though the topic is of great interest and value for all of us. Nevertheless, Jakosky is undaunted as he explores government politics, religious foundations and scientific methodology. Maybe he’s just trying to get us ready for finding something.

Finding life elsewhere in the universe would be exciting and would certainly bring a whole new dimension to reality TV shows. Before such an event, we should be prepared and as Bruce Jakosky says in his book Science, Society and the Search for Life in the Universe, there are many questions that would be worth considering and, hopefully, satisfactorily addressing before such an event could or should occur.