The best books about exploring the galaxy

Why am I passionate about this?

A child of scientists, I grew up planning to be a physicist, but became a novelist instead. Since I straddle the worlds of science and literature, I’ve always valued good science writing. It’s a rare talent to be able to inform and excite the general reader while not oversimplifying the science. I particularly thrill to books about exploring other planets and star systems, because when I was a teenager I read a lot of science fiction, and wished more than anything that someday, when I was much older, I would find myself on a rocket headed for, say, a colony on Mars.


I wrote...

The Stone Loves the World

By Brian Hall,

Book cover of The Stone Loves the World

What is my book about?

The Stone Loves the World is a novel about two families, one made up of scientists and the other of artists, whose only connection is an accidental pregnancy two decades in the past. That child, now twenty, is Mette—computer programmer, numbers theory enthusiast, socially awkward young woman, who has just suffered her first rejection in love. 

Contemplating suicide, she hops on a cross-country bus, while her long-estranged parents—Mark, an astronomer, and Saskia, an actress and playwright—combine their efforts to find her. This novel asks whether people of different temperaments and backgrounds can learn to understand each other, and whether people’s loneliness in society is echoed by human loneliness in the cosmos.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe

Brian Hall Why did I love 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.

By Peter D. Ward, Donald Brownlee,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Rare Earth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What determines whether complex life will arise on a planet, or even any life at all? Questions such as these are investigated in this groundbreaking book. In doing so, the authors synthesize information from astronomy, biology, and paleontology, and apply it to what we know about the rise of life on Earth and to what could possibly happen elsewhere in the universe. Everyone who has been thrilled by the recent discoveries of extrasolar planets and the indications of life on Mars and the Jovian moon Europa will be fascinated by Rare Earth, and its implications for those who look to…


Book cover of How to Find a Habitable Planet

Brian Hall Why did I love 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.

By James Kasting,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How to Find a Habitable Planet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ever since Carl Sagan first predicted that extraterrestrial civilizations must number in the millions, the search for life on other planets has gripped our imagination. Is Earth so rare that advanced life forms like us--or even the simplest biological organisms--are unique to the universe? How to Find a Habitable Planet describes how scientists are testing Sagan's prediction, and demonstrates why Earth may not be so rare after all. James Kasting has worked closely with NASA in its mission to detect habitable worlds outside our solar system, and in this book he introduces readers to the advanced methodologies being used in…


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

Brian Hall Why did I love 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.

By Robert Zubrin, Richard Wagner,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Case for Mars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Case for Marsmakes living in space seem more possible than ever in this updated 25th anniversary edition, featuring the latest information on the planet's exploration and the drive to send humans there.

Since the beginning of human history, Mars has been an alluring dream—the stuff of legends, gods, and mystery. The planet most like ours, it had long been thought impossible to reach, let alone explore and inhabit. But that is changing fast.

In February 2021, the American rover Perseverance will touch down on Mars. Equipped with a powerful suite of scientific instruments—including some that will attempt to make…


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

Brian Hall Why did I love 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.

By Steven Squyres,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Roving Mars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Steve Squyres is the face and voice of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission. Squyres dreamed up the mission in 1987, saw it through from conception in 1995 to a successful landing in 2004, and serves as the principal scientist of its $400 million payload. He has gained a rare inside look at what it took for rovers Spirit and Opportunity to land on the red planet in January 2004--and knows firsthand their findings.


Book cover of Disturbing the Universe

Brian Hall Why did I love 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.

By Freeman Dyson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Disturbing the Universe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Spanning the years from World War II, when he was a civilian statistician in the operations research section of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command, through his studies with Hans Bethe at Cornell University, his early friendship with Richard Feynman, and his postgraduate work with J. Robert Oppenheimer, Freeman Dyson has composed an autobiography unlike any other. Dyson evocatively conveys the thrill of a deep engagement with the world-be it as scientist, citizen, student, or parent. Detailing a unique career not limited to his ground-breaking work in physics, Dyson discusses his interest in minimizing loss of life in war, in…


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Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children

By Felice Picano,

Book cover of Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children

Felice Picano Author Of Six Strange Stories and an Essay on H.P. Lovecraft

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author

Felice's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Bold, funny, and shockingly honest, Ambidextrous is like no other memoir of 1950s urban childhood.

Picano appears to his parents and siblings to be a happy, cheerful eleven-year-old possessed of the remarkable talent of being able to draw beautifully and write fluently with either hand. But then he runs into the mindless bigotry of a middle school teacher who insists that left-handedness is "wrong," and his idyllic world falls apart.

He uncovers the insatiable appetites of a trio of neighboring sisters, falls for another boy with a glue-sniffing habit, and discovers the hidden world of adult desire and hypocrisy. Picano exits his boyhood sooner than most, but with this sense of self intact and armed with a fuller understanding of the world, he is about to enter.

Controversial when it first came out, Ambidextrous was burned on the docks of London in 1989 by Her Majesty Inland Service and decried by many. This reprint, with a Foreword by the author, discusses its banned book history and how it has become a classic depiction used by professionals involved in modern childhood studies.

Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children

By Felice Picano,

What is this book about?

Bold, funny, and shockingly honest, Ambidextrous is like no other memoir of 1950s urban childhood. Picano appears to his parents and siblings to be a happy, cheerful eleven-year-old, possessed of the remarkable talent of being able to draw beautifully and write fluently with either hand. But then he runs into the mindless bigotry of a middle school teacher who insists that left-handedness is "wrong," and his idyllic world falls apart. He uncovers the insatiable appetites of a trio of neighboring sisters, falls for another boy with a glue-sniffing habit, and discovers the hidden world of adult desire and hypocrisy. Picano…


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