Book Review: Five Billion Years of Solitude

As long as humans have roamed the Earth, they have looked up to the skies, speculating and pondering about the celestial wonders populating the distant cosmos. From the early astronomers and natural philosophers until today’s (including me), people have observed and studied the billions of twinkling dots, all the while wondering whether there are other worlds out there and whether they might host lifeforms like us.


In his first book, “Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars,” Lee Billings explores these and related questions. He chronicles the story of space exploration, planet-hunting and the growing field of astrobiology, while meeting fascinating characters and discussing their research, telescopes, discoveries and challenges. He offers clear and compelling explanations, such as of planetary physics and habitability, and he takes important asides into debates on space exploration budgets and the fate of our own planet, including the ongoing climate change crisis.

Billings is a talented science journalist. Like his work for Scientific American and other publications, the book is excellently written and researched. It won the 2014 American Institute of Physics science communication award in the book category, announced at the American Astronomical Society meeting in January.

Over the course of the book, Billings tracks down and speaks with important figures in planetary astronomy. He begins with Frank Drake, who along with nine other scientists in 1961 attempt to quantify the abundance of life-supporting planets in the galaxy in a calculation now known as the Drake Equation. He also meets with other astrophysicists, including University of California, Santa Cruz professor Greg Laughlin, Space Telescope Science Institute director Matt Mountain and MIT professor Sara Seager.

Since the time-scale or life-time of civilizations plays a role in the Drake Equation, his investigations lead to an examination of our own history and the longevity of humanity on Earth. Billings discusses the planet’s changing climate and other looming threats, for which our society appears unprepared. His reporting takes him to southern California too, where he quotes from my former colleague, UC San Diego physicist Tom Murphy, who considered the question of growing global energy consumption.

Other important questions come up as well. How far away are planets beyond our solar system and how long would it take to get there? What kind of atmospheric, geological and climatic conditions must a habitable planet have? How do astronomers detect planets, when they are so small, so faint and so close to their brightly glowing suns? What are our prospects for finding more Earth-like planets?

And what will happen to the Earth and humankind—if we’re still around—over the next few billion years, as our sun brightens, expands and transforms into a red giant star? As Billings starkly puts it in his interview for The Atlantic, “We may have—we may be—the only chance available for life on Earth to somehow escape a final, ultimate planetary and stellar death.”

Artist's conception of NASA's Kepler spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

Artist’s conception of NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

With the Kepler telescope, we have the good fortune to be living at a time when actually Earth-like worlds, not just super-Earths and gas dwarfs, can be identified. Astronomers have already used the telescope to find a few potential Earth cousins, which have the right size and the right “Goldilocks” distance from their stars, and many many more candidates are on the horizon. Under certain conditions, follow-up observations can measure the planets’ atmospheres and climates to further assess their habitability.

It’s an exciting time! With even more advanced planet-finding telescopes coming up, such as the Hubble successors, the James Webb Space Telescope and High-Definition Space Telescope, we can look forward to more detailed images and observations of exoplanets in the near future. Maybe Earth has twins and maybe we are not alone.

I have a few criticisms of Five Billion Years, but they’re very minor ones. I liked the analysis of federal budget debates at multiple points in the book, but Billings could have written a little more about why as a society we should prioritize space exploration and astronomical research. If, say, a member of the House Science Committee (or more likely, their staffer) were to read this, it would be helpful to spell that out. Early in the book, he provides an engaging historical survey of astronomy, but he neglected Eastern contributions, such as from Persians, Arabs and Chinese. A few chapters meandered quite a bit too, but I enjoyed his writing style.

In any case, this is a beautifully written and thoroughly researched book, and I recommend it. Billings puts the search for extraterrestrial life in a broader context and pushes us to think about our place in the vast universe. The story continues.

[P.S. I’m extremely busy these days with the UC Santa Cruz science communication program and writing internships, so I may write posts here less often. But I will link to pieces I’ve written elsewhere, which have the benefit of rigorous editing, so if you like my blog, you’ll like them even more.]

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