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Good Reads  Reference  Physical Sciences  Astrobiology

Life in the Cosmos From Biosignatures to Technosignatures

By: Manasvi Lingam(Author), Abraham Loeb(Author)
1061 pages, 2 b/w photos, 78 b/w illustrations, 9 tables
A highly detailed yet accessible academic tome, Life in the Cosmos is a stellar achievement that deserves the attention of readers ready to take a deep dive into astrobiology.
Life in the Cosmos
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  • Life in the Cosmos ISBN: 9780674987579 Hardback Jun 2021 In stock
Price: £60.95
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

A rigorous and scientific analysis of the myriad possibilities of life beyond our planet.

“Are we alone in the universe?” This tantalizing question has captivated humanity over millennia, but seldom has it been approached rigorously. Today the search for signatures of extraterrestrial life and intelligence has become a rapidly advancing scientific endeavour. Missions to Mars, Europa, and Titan seek evidence of life. Laboratory experiments have made great strides in creating synthetic life, deepening our understanding of conditions that give rise to living entities. And on the horizon are sophisticated telescopes to detect and characterize exoplanets most likely to harbour life.

Life in the Cosmos offers a thorough overview of the burgeoning field of astrobiology, including the salient methods and paradigms involved in the search for extraterrestrial life and intelligence. Manasvi Lingam and Abraham Loeb tackle three areas of interest in hunting for life “out there”: first, the pathways by which life originates and evolves; second, planetary and stellar factors that affect the habitability of worlds, with an eye on the biomarkers that may reveal the presence of microbial life; and finally, the detection of technological signals that could be indicative of intelligence. Drawing on empirical data from observations and experiments, as well as the latest theoretical and computational developments, the authors make a compelling scientific case for the search for life beyond what we can currently see.

Meticulous and comprehensive, Life in the Cosmos is a master class from top researchers in astrobiology, suggesting that the answer to our age-old question is closer than ever before.



1. Some Intrinsic Properties of Life
      1.1. Defining life: Does it matter?
      1.2. The requirements for life
      1.3. The Anna Karenina principle

I. The Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth
2. The Pathways to the Origin of Life on Earth
      2.1. When did life originate on Earth?
      2.2. The basic building blocks of life
      2.3. Synthesis of the basic building blocks of life
      2.4. The polymerization of monomers
      2.5. The RNA world
      2.6. Did metabolism arise first?
      2.7. What are the plausible sites for abiogenesis?
      2.8. Mathematical models relating to the origin of life
      2.9. Conclusion
3. The Evolutionary History of Life on Earth
      3.1. The origin of life
      3.2. The diversification of bacteria and archaea
      3.3. Oxygenic photosynthesis
      3.4. The rise of oyxgen and the Great Oxygenation Event
      3.5. Eukaryotes
      3.6. Complex multicellularity
      3.7. Intelligence in animals
      3.8. Technological intelligence
      3.9. Paradigms for major evolutionary events
      3.10. The critical steps model
      3.11. Conclusion

II. Aspects of Extraterrestrial Biospheres
4. Habitability: Stellar Factors
      4.1. The habitable zone and its extensions
      4.2. Stellar winds
      4.3. Stellar electromagnetic radiation
      4.4. Stellar flares and associated space weather phenomena
      4.5. Conclusion
5. Habitability: Planetary Factors
      5.1. The myriad roles of temperature
      5.2. Plate tectonics and habitability
      5.3. Tidal locking and its consequences
      5.4. Atmospheric composition
      5.5. The extent of landmasses and oceans on the surface
      5.6. The distribution of landmasses and oceans
      5.7. Life in the atmosphere
      5.8. Conclusion
6. The Quest for Biosignatures
      6.1. Transiting planets
      6.2. Non-transiting planets
      6.3. Alternative observational constraints on habitability
      6.4. Gaseous biosignatures
      6.5. Surface biosignatures
      6.6. Temporal biosignatures
      6.7. False positives versus real biosignatures
      6.8. Assessing the plausibility of life detection
      6.9. Conclusion
7. Life in Subsurface Oceans
      7.1. Worlds with subsurface oceans within our solar system
      7.2. Temperature profiles of the ice envelopes
      7.3. The habitats for subsurface ocean worlds
      7.4. The routes to abiogenesis on subsurface ocean worlds
      7.5. Ecosystems in planets with subsurface oceans
      7.6. Bioessential elements and subsurface ocean worlds
      7.7. Evolutionary trajectories on subsurface ocean worlds
      7.8. Number of subsurface ocean worlds and the implications for detection
      7.9. Conclusion

III. Aspects of Extraterrestrial Technospheres
8. The Drake Equation and Fermi’s Paradox
      8.1. The Drake equation
      8.2. The great silence: Where is everybody?
      8.3. Conclusion
9. The Quest for Technosignatures
      9.1. Radio technosignatures
      9.2. Optical and infrared technosignatures
      9.3. Modality of interstellar signaling
      9.4. On the classification of technological agents
      9.5. Artifact technosignatures
      9.6. The relative prospects for detecting ETIs
      9.7. Conclusion
10. The Propagation of Life in the Universe
      10.1. History and principles of panspermia
      10.2. Interplanetary and interstellar panspermia
      10.3. Seeking potential signatures of panspermia
      10.4. Interstellar travel via rockets
      10.5. Interstellar travel without onboard fuel
      10.6. Conclusion

Epilogue: Sic Itur Ad Astra

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A highly detailed yet accessible academic tome, Li
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 5 Nov 2021 Written for Hardback

    Are we alone in the universe? For the moment, this question remains unanswered, though there are many ways to tackle it. Just how many was something I did not appreciate until I sunk my teeth into Harvard University Press's new flagship astronomy title Life in the Cosmos. Written by astrobiologist Manasvi Lingam and theoretical physicist Abraham "Avi" Loeb, this is a book of truly colossal proportions, clocking in at over 1000 pages. It boldly goes where few academic books have gone before by seriously and open-mindedly considering the possibility of extraterrestrial technological intelligence on par with, or far beyond humans. I found myself gravitating towards this book on account of more than just its size.

    Lingam & Loeb have clustered ten long chapters into three parts, each logically following from the previous: life on Earth, biological signs of extraterrestrial life (biosignatures), and technological signs (technosignatures). Before turning their eyes towards the stars, the authors discuss origin-of-life research and the major hallmarks of life's evolution. In the context of astrobiology, this is highly relevant material and I strongly agree with their reasoning that the "exploration of Earth's rich biospheres [...] is necessary [...] from the standpoint of gaining a better understanding of the paths available for biological evolution on other worlds" (p. 223).

    More challenging – for a biologist that is – was the part on biosignatures. When examining how parameters of stars and planets influence habitability, the reader can expect extended discussions on various forms of stellar radiation and planetary properties such as plate tectonics, tidal locking, or temperature. The chapter on detecting biosignatures reasonably focuses on remote sensing. Robotic probes will, for now, only go so far. Thus, this entails discussions rich in chemistry and astrophysics when delving into e.g. spectroscopy or the mechanics of exoplanets transiting their stars. The more speculative third part of the book looks at the likelihood of technological civilizations, including the Drake equation and the Fermi paradox. It asks how we might detect them, not just by radio signals, but also by e.g. optical signals and artefacts. And it considers how life might spread through the universe, discussing both panspermia and futuristic options for propulsion technology.

    Having spent the last twelve days ploughing through this tome, here are three things that stood out for me.

    First, this book is rich in technical detail. Why are carbon and water suitable universal chemicals? The answer explores bond strengths and water's dipole moment. Could life have started as self-replicating RNA? Reaction kinetics will provide an answer. The authors go beyond mere qualitative descriptions, providing plenty of quantitative models, mathematical formulae, and chemical equations. Simultaneously, they only scratch the surface of many topics. They give readers, in their own words, "toy models", cover only a limited number of examples, and frequently refer the reader to the extensive 118-page bibliography. This is not to suggest that their discussions are shallow, quite the opposite: they manage to give bird's-eye overviews in just a few pages, and this characterises hundreds of pages of this book.

    Second, a note on the writing. The book is possessed of a certain, to use an appropriately obscure word, grandiloquence. The authors adumbrate, they explicate, they use fiduciary values in their models, and they regularly use Latin phrases (ipso facto, prima facie, inter alia). Without a hint of irony, they write that "we have opted to eschew an orthodox approach that is exclusively oriented toward the explication of technical details and endeavored instead to enkindle and inculcate a genuine passion for the subject by enhancing the readability of this tome" (p. xvi). Hmmm. Even most academics that I know do not write or talk like this. Now, I do not want to blow this out of proportion, as for a book of this calibre I was not expecting slick pop science either. Once you have reached for the dictionary a few times you quickly get used to it. And, fortunately, the lofty vocabulary is not accompanied by an air of pomposity or self-aggrandisement that I sometimes encounter. By and large, the authors have succeeded in keeping this technical book accessible to a wider academic audience. This also shows in the way they introduce and explain the many mathematical formulae. Rather than drowning the reader in algebraic derivations, they will frequently skip to the final expression.

    Astrobiology might seem like a niche affair and the authors readily acknowledge that as long as our sample size is one, informed guesswork is the best we can do. Thus, the final thing I noticed is that Lingam & Loeb keep an open mind and will not discount anything out of hand. The authors rigorously discuss rather speculative ideas, even by the standards of their own discipline. Think hypothetical megastructures such as Stapledon-Dyson spheres, futuristic propulsion technologies, or panspermia: the seeding of different worlds with life via asteroids or other means. Nevertheless, they remain suitably sceptical and circumspect throughout. Notably, when the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua was spotted passing through our Solar system in 2017, Loeb caused a stir by proclaiming that it had to be an alien artefact. Life in the Cosmos has not become a vehicle to promote this idea further, which I think was a wise decision. More relevant is how Lingam & Loeb defend their choice to include such topics. The search for technosignatures can piggyback on that for biosignatures with only a little added expense and effort. Furthermore, I agree that the discovery of technologically advanced life will be even more impactful than that of microbial life. And if we did find signs of life in the solar system, the question of how (dis)similar it is to Earth life means panspermia is immediately back on the table.

    In conclusion, the detailed exploration of astrobiology in all its facets will make this a statement that few astrobiologists and astronomers can or will want to ignore. In my opinion, this book gets several difficult balances right: it is technical yet accessible, rigorous yet fascinating, and open-minded yet suitably circumspect about the topics it treats. Life in the Cosmos is a stellar achievement that deserves the undivided attention of readers who are ready to take a deep dive into astrobiology.
    1 of 1 found this helpful - Was this helpful to you? Yes No


Manasvi Lingam is Assistant Professor of Astrobiology at the Florida Institute of Technology, an affiliate of the Institute for Theory and Computation at Harvard University, and a member of the American Physical Society.

Abraham Loeb is Frank B. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science at Harvard University. He is Founding Director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative, chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

By: Manasvi Lingam(Author), Abraham Loeb(Author)
1061 pages, 2 b/w photos, 78 b/w illustrations, 9 tables
A highly detailed yet accessible academic tome, Life in the Cosmos is a stellar achievement that deserves the attention of readers ready to take a deep dive into astrobiology.
Media reviews

"The new go-to for astrobiology. Life in the Cosmos is a quantitative and encyclopedic tour de force for all topics related to the origin of life on Earth and life's existence beyond."
– Sara Seager, author of The Smallest Lights in the Universe

"An instant classic. Lingam and Loeb's brilliant Life in the Cosmos is a momentous scientific achievement. To anyone looking to dig deep into the exciting prospect of discovering extraterrestrial life, I say: Make space on your bookshelf."
– Michael J. Russell, University of Turin

"Are we alone in the universe? Lingam and Loeb provide expert guidance to the many dimensions of this fundamental question – and, just maybe, how to answer it."
– Andrew H. Knoll, author of A Brief History of Earth: Four Billion Years in Eight Chapters

"A book of sweeping vision. Lingam and Loeb offer detailed and insightful analysis of the challenges we face as we investigate the universal distribution of this unusual material we call life. A helpful and fascinating read."
– Charles Cockell, author of Astrobiology: Understanding Life in the Universe

"A remarkable and modern survey of how to search for life in the universe, from two of the boldest, most innovative thinkers in the field today. Impressively detailed, this book takes into account what we know about life on Earth to consider what we don't know about life elsewhere."
– Jason Wright, Director, Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center

"This book discusses everything you ever wanted to know about life in the cosmos. Lingam and Loeb are the best guides for this truly breathtaking journey, providing masterful and comprehensive answers for everyone, from the scholar to the amateur stargazer."
– Dimitar Sasselov, author of The Life of Super-Earths: How the Hunt for Alien Worlds and Artificial Cells Will Revolutionize Life on Our Planet

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