Posted on Tuesday, January 28, 2014
By Kadri

We Are the Martians by Giovanni F. Bignami

Rating: 6/10

It has been suggested that life might first have arisen on the red planet Mars, as it's smaller size and being further away from the hot Sun would have cooled it down faster after it formed, hence making it possible for life to get started millions of years earlier as it did on Earth. And as we know nowadays – there is still water on Mars, and historically there were flowing rivers, and it was a geologically active planet, unlike it's present form.

However we only have proof of life existing here on Earth, and possible other ways of where it might have come from, would make an interesting topic, but what Bignami concentrates on, is how it all started – he is literally going from the Big Bang and the first chemical elements in the Universe all the way to the formation of the Solar system and the planet on which we live.

When we first have the necessary environment in which we know life could pop up it's green head, Bignami delves into modern astronomical research in pursuit of extrasolar planets or exoplanets.

Exoplanets have been media stars in this century to say the least, as more and more of them are found. Only recently there was a so-called “hot Jupiter” found around a star that is considered a “solar twin”, and planets with atmospheres, and different sizes seem to have become abundant.

There are several ways for detecting exoplanets, some of which are described in “We Are The Martians”. The best known method is the transit method, which was used on the Kepler mission – the telescope is aimed at a rather large area of sky and it measures hundreds of thousand of stars over a large time period looking for stars that seem to dim regularly. In which case more research is usually done with ground-based telescopes. But the transit method is just one, which can't even discover exoplanets around stars if their orbits as seen from the Earth never take the planet on to the star's disk.
From the research methods Bignami continues by letting the reader know what it actually is that astronomers are searching in these exoplanets.

Extraterrestrial life is the main topic in this book, although it is not obvious straight from the start of the book, but it is trying to put together cosmology, astronomy and biology, and in some ways the author seems to succeed, although parts of the book tend to be a little whimsical and maybe too poetic for such a topic.

Comets that might have brought most of the water to Earth and with it also some amino acids have been researched with different methods since the time of first astronomers, mostly being bad omens or carriers of death or plague, comets still retain a lot that modern scientists want to find out about this dirty snow-balls, such missions as Giotto and Stardust are introduced.

Once we've seen everything that has or might have contributed to life on Earth we finally get into the biology part of the book, which with it's philosophical question of “What is Life” and the concept of panspermia take the reader away from astronomy on a curious trip into whether life is something that is destined to start given necessary initial conditions, or is it more of a fluke.

That guides us to the final parts of the book about search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and the first pioneers in the field.

All-in-all the book is interesting, although might lose some readers because of several very specific keywords, that might be unfamiliar to the reader. It is worth noticing though, that such a wide topic is condensed into so few pages, makes it almost but not quite Cliffsnotes of astrobiology.


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