The best books about exploring the galaxy

Brian Hall Author Of The Stone Loves the World
By Brian Hall

The Books I Picked & Why

Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe

By Peter D. Ward, Donald Brownlee

Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe

Why this book?

Everyone wants complex life to be common in the universe, because that’s way more interesting than an unimaginably vast collection of rocky and gassy spheres devoid of anything but chemicals or—maybe, every now and then—bacterial analogues. Scientists are human, too, so it’s probable that most scientific theories about extraterrestrial life are skewed toward optimism. Peter D. Ward, a paleontologist, and Donald Brownlee, an astronomer, team up in Rare Earth to issue a corrective to wishful thinking. In cogent, persuasive prose they build their case for why the planet Earth, as an incubator of complex life, might be very, very, very unusual. This is one of my favorite science books of all time, because it challenges the general reader to be more scientifically objective than many scientists, to be clear-eyed rather than starry-eyed.


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How to Find a Habitable Planet

By James Kasting

How to Find a Habitable Planet

Why this book?

Kasting, a geoscientist, is one of the world’s leading theorists on planet habitability, who for many years has collaborated with NASA in the search for habitable extrasolar planets. He is more optimistic than Ward and Brownlee, arguing that we still don’t know enough about the exoplanet population to conclude that Earth is so very rare. How to Find a Habitable Planet begins by looking at why the Earth is habitable, then goes on to discuss limits to planetary habitability, the failed cases of Mars and Venus, habitable zones around stars, detection of extrasolar planets, and techniques that could be used to surmise the presence of life on those planets. What I love about this book is how it digs into the nitty-gritty details of the science, how it trusts the reader to be willing to think hard, and think deeper.


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The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must

By Robert Zubrin, Richard Wagner

The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must

Why this book?

This one is for all those nerds, like me, who grew up reading science fiction and dreaming of someday living in a lunar or Martian colony. Robert Zubrin is an aerospace engineer who, with his colleague David Baker, formulated a proposal in 1990 for building a human settlement on the Red Planet that, by bypassing low-Earth-orbit construction platforms and a lunar waystation, would be both cost-effective and entirely based on current technology. In his 1996 book, The Case for Mars (updated in 2011), he lays out the logistics of this plan, which he calls Mars Direct. Like Kasting’s book, Zubrin gets into all the wonderful technical details of how the settlement of Mars—starting tomorrow!—might work. His book reads almost like an Andy Weir-style novel, in which it’s easy to believe you’re reading about a project that’s actually underway. A thrilling read for dreamers.


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Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet

By Steven Squyres

Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet

Why this book?

Zubrin’s book proposes a tantalizing what-if. Steve Squyres’ Roving Mars presents readers with an exciting and suspenseful blow-by-blow account of an awesome thing that actually happened: the successful landing on Mars of the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and the jaw-dropping success of those lovable little robotic beetles. It was hoped that the rovers might function for as long as 90 days. Opportunity performed for 15 years. (Spirit, that slacker, phoned it in for only 6 years.) Squyres, an astronomer, was the principal investigator for the mission, and he proves to be an enormously appealing guide: enthusiastic, excitable, grateful, humble. One of the many likable things about this book is that Squyres lets us see how scientists in charge of a years-long multimillion-dollar one-shot mission with a high chance of failure are every bit as superstitious as village peasants: Squyres makes sure to wear his tattered good-luck jeans to every launch.


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Disturbing the Universe

By Freeman Dyson

Disturbing the Universe

Why this book?

Freeman Dyson, who died last year at the age of 96, was one of the world's leading physicists. He was also one of the worlds leading mathematicians. Later in life, he became one of the world’s leading astronomers. He was passionately concerned with the ethics of science and the perils of human politics. He also read a lot of literature and had interesting things to say about it, and could write better than many novelists. In 1979, at the age of 56, he published Disturbing the Universe: part autobiography, part window into the mind of a scientist, part essayistic rumination. There’s no other book like it. Listing the titles of the chapters covering his life until age 23 hints at the book’s richness and unpredictability: “The Magic City,” “The Redemption of Faust,” “The Children’s Crudade,” “The Blood of a Poet.” In the book’s final third, Dyson addresses issues related to the exploration of the galaxy, which is why it’s on this list. But I would try to figure out how to include it on any “best of” list, regardless of the theme.


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