As the holiday season approaches, book lists fill the entertainment sections of newspapers: fiction and non-fiction, prize winners of all sorts, the ubiquitous coffee-table large-format illustrated tomes, and children's literature. For me, it's always a tempting feast. It's an opportunity to expand my personal library or find a gift for someone special.
I particularly like giving books to children. I'm sure that this reflects my own childhood love of reading. As a girl, I lived on a ranch in rural California. Books opened new vistas for me. I remember especially a book about Egyptian archeology and another about Fremont's exploration of the West. Each took me to another place and time with adventuresome people who were exploring places I'd never seen. These books stimulated my own sense of adventure that, in part, led to my career in science. Science is about taking risk, exploring the unknown, and seeking answers to fundamental questions.
SETI scientists explore the universe, seeking extraterrestrial signals from places we've never seen. It's an adventure. We search for evidence that we are not alone in the universe. It's exciting science and is an interesting story to share with children and adults. This column is simply a very specialized book list. It's my personal list, not a comprehensive review of SETI literature. Rather, there is something for every reader here, from elementary school children to scientifically sophisticated adult.
Elementary and middle school kids will enjoy two award-winning books.
"Are We Alone? Scientists Search for Life in Space" (opens in new tab) by Gloria Skurzynski begins with the classic question: Are we alone? After discussion UFOs and common public misconceptions about aliens visiting Earth, Skurzynski goes to where the real science is happening. She brings her considerable writing skills to this delightful book, which spans astrobiology, the study of life as we know it on Earth and the search for life beyond Earth. Scientists look for life using microscopes, telescopes, space missions, and planetary explorations. They study extremophiles, organisms that live in extreme environments on Earth, in the hopes that they will lead us to a better understanding of how life may exist in space. This book visits scientists across the globe who are trying to find out more about life, from Puerto Rico to California, from Socorro, New Mexico to Chile, Finland, Spain, and Hawaii. It's a good read and a great adventure. Selected by National Science Teachers Association and Children's Book Council as a "Best Book." (Hardback: National Geographic, 96 pages, 2004)
"Looking for Life in the Universe" (opens in new tab) by Ellen Jackson and photographer Nic Bishop introduces readers to Dr. Jill Tarter, the SETI Institute's Director of SETI Research, and her thrilling, rigorous, and awe-inspiring work as a scientist searching for life beyond Earth. When children consider careers in science and technology, the pathway to such careers is not always clear. Delightfully, "Looking for Life in the Universe" is more than Jill's scientific work; it goes back to her childhood and shows how she became an engineer and scientist. This book is part of a series from Houghton Mifflin that focuses on working scientists, and a winner of the 2002 National Science Teachers Association Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children. (Hardback: Houghton Mifflin, 64 pages, 2002)
Are you looking for an introduction of basic astronomy to share with your children? I suggest "The Everything Astronomy Book" (opens in new tab) by Cynthia Phillips and Shana Priwer. When Phillips, a planetary scientist at SETI Institute, is not writing for children and the public, she's exploring Jupiter's moon, Europa, a watery world that is the target of future NASA exploration. She's seeking to explain the surface features and evolution of this icy moon. Her ability to clearly explain science is evident in "The Everything Astronomy Book." It offers a comprehensive guide to astronomy for a general audience. This book is packed with useful diagrams, photos, tips for backyard stargazers, and fascinating history. It is a perfect introduction to the night sky for a beginner as well as a handy reference for the bookshelf of anyone captivated by the cosmos. (Paperback: Adams Media Corporation, 289 pages, 2002)
For all of us who enjoy Seth Shostak's clear thinking and clever prose, two books bring his unique explanation of SETI to your living room.
"Cosmic Company: The Search for Life in the Universe" (opens in new tab) by Seth Shostak, Senior Scientist at SETI Institute, Alex Barnett, Executive Director of Chabot Space and Science Center. Together, Seth and Alex produced a planetarium program simply entitled SETI. "Cosmic Company" complements the planetarium program and brings their ideas and delightful illustrations of alien beings to your home. They explore the possibility of alien a life, and the consequences of receiving a signal from the cosmos. Why might scientists think sentient life might exist on other worlds? How can we discover it? What might alien life be like? Entertaining and informative, this hard cover book is lavishly illustrated. (Hardcover: Cambridge University Press, 162 pages, 2003)
"Sharing the Universe" (opens in new tab) by Seth Shostak with forward by Frank Drake. Where are the extraterrestrials likely to be hanging out? What will they look like and be like? What is their interest in us, and how can we find them? Shostak tells all in this witty and informative book. Publishers Weekly says: "The book is rich in considered, engaging science... Sections on possible alien behavior, on motives for contact and means of contact... are compelling as they reveal as much about us as about anyone who may pop across for a visit." Seth's clear and thoughtful prose is both entertaining and stimulating. "Sharing the Universe" is suitable for adolescent and adult readers alike. It's a classic, and is great for travel reading. (Paperback: Berkeley Hills Books, 206 pages, 1998)
For the serious student who desires a comprehensive treatment of astrobiology, the interdisciplinary science that encompasses SETI, I recommend the college-level textbook, "Life in the Universe" (opens in new tab) by Jeffrey Bennett, Seth Shostak, and Bruce Jakosky. Nationally, this is the best-selling astrobiology textbook. "Life in the Universe" provides a comprehensive treatment of the subject, including the fundamentals of biology, the search for life in the solar system, and SETI. Although intended for classroom use, this imposing, richly illustrated book is a great read and a handy reference for all those interested in the possible existence of, and search for, life beyond Earth. Look for it online or at your local college bookstore. (Paperback: Addison-Wesley Publishing; 1st edition, 346 pages, 2002)
Finally, for those who wish to delve into the science and technology of SETI, there's "SETI 2020: A Roadmap for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence" (opens in new tab) edited by Ron Ekers, Kent Cullers, John Billingham, and Louis Scheffer, with forward by Philip Morrison. Today, the SETI Institute and University of California Berkeley's Radio Astronomy Laboratory are building the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), the next-generation design for radio astronomy and SETI. We're on the brink of a renaissance in SETI and radio astronomy. "SETI 2020" began with a three-year effort of top astronomers, researchers, engineers and technology gurus to map the future of SETI. "SETI 2020" reports that planning and maps the future of SETI in the first two decades of this millennium. Within the pages of this volume, you'll find the compelling arguments for building new radio telescopes as large arrays of relatively small antennas - a scheme that is now being implemented in the Allen Telescope Array. There is a thorough discussion of new types of telescopes that can survey the entire sky at once. Of particular interest is the book's extensive treatment of optical SETI - the search for signals beamed our way using high-powered, pulsed lasers or their equivalent. "SETI 2020" is a work that's interesting for both the layman and the scientifically sophisticated. It is the definitive publication in this fascinating field, one that will give readers both big picture ideas and specific, technical detail. It's an indispensable resource for all those interested in the exciting new efforts to detect other intelligence in the cosmos. (Paperback: SETI Institute, 551 pages, 2002)
There are many other books that could be on this list. For sentimental reasons, I'll close with "Intelligent Life in the Universe" (opens in new tab) by Carl Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii. I read this SETI classic in my first college physics course at a small liberal arts college where all students took physics, chemistry and biology: life in the universe and SETI were the themes that wove these classes together. It's nice to see that the notion of astrobiology is now, again, prominent in college classrooms. Although advances in scientific exploration and discovery date parts of the text, Sagan and Shklovskii's book remains a terrific introduction to SETI. Published in the 1960's, this book first brought SETI to wide public notice. It was my first introduction to the Drake equation -- and I was intrigued. Look for "Intelligent Life in the Universe" online or at your favorite used bookstore. It's still a great read!
Happy holidays -- I hope you enjoy sharing astrobiology and SETI with your family and friends.