The best books to learn about the planets and life outside the Earth

The Books I Picked & Why

Cosmos

By Carl Sagan

Cosmos

Why this book?

Carl Sagan was my advisor and mentor at Cornell (where I got my PhD), and everything good about him shines through in this book: his scientific rigor and honesty, his skill at making complex subjects and ideas clear, and his excitement for discovery and exploration. Cosmos is an overview of where we came from, where we are going, how we are all “star stuff”, and of course, possible life outside the Earth.


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Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us

By Donald K. Yeomans

Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us

Why this book?

If you think astronomy is useless, read this book. Most asteroids dwell in the space between Mars and Jupiter, but every so often one gets flung into the inner Solar System on a collision course with Earth. Scientists believe the dinosaurs were wiped out when a 10-mile wide asteroid collided with the Earth. How often does this happen? We’re not sure. Should we worry? Yes. This engaging book describes NASA’s plans to search for these killers, to know how often they hit the Earth, and to destroy them before they destroy us.


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Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space

By Kevin Hand

Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space

Why this book?

The search for life outside the Earth is NASA’s greatest quest, and this book will bring you up to speed on it. Just a few decades ago, scientists thought life arose on the Earth in shallow seas, warmed by the early sun and zapped by energy-producing lightning. The best place to look for alien life was on Mars, where bacterial life may have formed in the shallow pools that covered the young Mars, and then hunkered down in subsurface spots of Martian water and ice as these pools evaporated. Scientists now suspect life arose in warm vents deep in the Earth’s ocean. Subsurface oceans in the moons of the outer Solar System may contain similar vents that serve as breeding grounds for primitive life. Kevin Hand describes NASA’s current missions and instruments to find this life in alien oceans.


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The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World

By Sarah Stewart Johnson

The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World

Why this book?

No planet has held our imagination as Mars has. From the “canals” observed by Percival Lowell, to the terraforming of the planet into an Earth-like world, we are just drawn to Mars, and expect to find ourselves on it. NASA still spends most of its effort in planetary exploration to finding life on Mars, and Sarah Stewart Johnson weaves her very personal story of how she got involved in that search alongside the scientific advancements of that search.


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The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir

By Sara Seager

The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir

Why this book?

There can be no question greater than “Is there life outside the Earth?”. Sara Seager places her own search for planets outside the Earth - almost 5000 planets in other solar systems have been discovered in the past three decades, including Earth-like bodies - against her own life story and struggles as a scientist weathering the unexpected loss of a spouse and the raising of her two young sons. Astronomers estimate there are billions of undiscovered planets just in our Galaxy. Seager paints our very own Earth as a bright point of community and connection in the vastness of space as she gives a first-person account of the technical challenges of seeking other planets and life elsewhere.


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