The best astrobiology books

1 authors have picked their favorite books about astrobiology and why they recommend each book.

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How to Find a Habitable Planet

By James Kasting,

Book cover of How to Find a Habitable Planet

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.

Who am I?

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.

Rare Earth

By Peter D. Ward, Donald Brownlee,

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

Some people may think “Hail Caesar” coursing through Frank Drake’s equation on the possibility and abundance of intelligent life out there in the universe. But hold up Hoss, Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee are about to pour cold water all over Frank’s imaginative equation. This was the first book to offer an accurate assessment of the possibility of life among the stars beyond slime, sludge, and bacteria. Intelligent life, capable of technology and communications, may be rarer than we ever imagined.  This is barn-burning thought provoking-informative and sobering look at how unique the sometimes intelligent human species may really be.

Who am I?

I am a naturalist, astronomer, space artist, and a Harvard world lecturer living in the Rocky Mountains outside of Aspen. So far, I’ve written and illustrated twelve kid’s astronomy books for National Geographic and Penguin Random House. I directed the Science Information Center at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge Massachusetts for fourteen years then left in 2015 to join NASA’s New Horizons Mission Team becoming one of the first humans to see the planet Pluto up close and personal. I am also a Grammy nominated songwriter/musician, astrophotographer, telescope maker who enjoys scuba diving at night and occasionally has been known to parachute out of perfectly operating aircraft.

I wrote...

Space Encyclopedia: A Tour of Our Solar System and Beyond

By David A. Aguilar,

Book cover of Space Encyclopedia: A Tour of Our Solar System and Beyond

What is my book about?

Space Encyclopedia is an updated and expanded 2nd edition of my earlier book Planets, Stars & Galaxies presenting the most up-to-date discoveries of the universe including the first breathtaking image of a real black hole. This cosmic compendium contains everything space travelers might need to know about our solar system, a new menagerie of dwarf planets, the formation and ultimate fate of the universe, great-unsolved mysteries, the future of space travel, and the possibility of intelligent life beyond the Earth.

It has almost everything except the kitchen sink. This is your 21st Century passport to the stars. Check your spacesuit for leaks, your journey begins the moment you open it up.

Alien Oceans

By Kevin Hand,

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

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.

Who am I?

As a child I was fascinated by space, planets, and the stars. Now I am a planetary scientist who has been involved with NASA’s interplanetary missions for four decades. I am curious, passionate about space exploration and discovery, and have been in leadership roles on some of these missions. I am also passionate about communicating these discoveries to the public. Learn about the planets from an expert, an insider who was there in the thick of the action during key times and who wants to communicate this excitement to you.

I wrote...

Worlds Fantastic, Worlds Familiar: A Guided Tour of the Solar System

By Bonnie J. Buratti,

Book cover of Worlds Fantastic, Worlds Familiar: A Guided Tour of the Solar System

What is my book about?

Join Bonnie J. Buratti, a leading planetary astronomer, on this personal tour of NASA's latest discoveries. Moving through the Solar System from Mercury, Venus, Mars, past comets and asteroids and the moons of the giant planets, to Pluto, and on to exoplanets, she gives vivid descriptions of landforms that are similar to those found on Earth but that are more fantastic. Sulfur-rich volcanoes and lakes on Io, active gullies on Mars, huge ice plumes and tar-like deposits on the moons of Saturn, hydrocarbon rivers and lakes on Titan, and nitrogen glaciers on Pluto are just some of the marvels that await readers. Learn about the search for life on other planets, and discover what it is like to be involved in a major scientific enterprise, with all its pitfalls and excitement. 

This engaging account of modern space exploration is written for non-specialist readers, from students in high school to enthusiasts of all ages.


By Andrew May,

Book cover of Astrobiology: The Search for Life Elsewhere in the Universe

“Are we alone?” An age-old question that we may never answer. Andrew May walks us through the scientific study of whether there might be life elsewhere in the universe, and how we might identify it. And by “scientific study,” I mean actual scientific investigations, not wishy-washy sci-fi fluff. The book is both inspiring and terrifying, because the immense distances in space and time make you realize that intelligent life is both incredibly insignificant and incredibly precious.

Who am I?

I am an associate professor of neuroscience at the Donders Institute in the Netherlands. My research lab focuses on discovering how the brain uses electrical signaling to compute information, and transfer information across different regions of the brain. I also have a few decades of experience teaching scientific coding, data analysis, statistics, and related topics, and have authored several online courses and textbooks. I have a suspiciously dry sense of humor and insufficient patience to read five books on the same topic.

I wrote...

Linear Algebra: Theory, Intuition, Code

By Mike X Cohen,

Book cover of Linear Algebra: Theory, Intuition, Code

What is my book about?

Linear algebra is the study of matrices (like a spreadsheet of numbers) and operations acting on them. Linear algebra used to be an advanced topic that was only of interest to advanced mathematics students. But modern computing has brought linear algebra to the forefront of human civilization: Nearly everything that computers do — from video graphics to financial modeling to machine learning to artificial intelligence — is implemented using linear algebra. I have tried to present linear algebra in a way that is rigorous yet lucid, explaining proofs and concepts while also using diagrams and code to show how linear algebra is applied and used in practice. This textbook can be used for self-study or as part of a university-level course.

Death by Black Hole

By Neil Degrasse Tyson,

Book cover of Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries

Tyson has done a wonderful job taking over as the layman’s communicator about science after his mentor, Carl Sagan, returned to the stars. This book in particular explains a plethora of scientific questions while showcasing Tyson’s humor and overall science acumen. I enjoy anything he writes and always find his books informative and witty.

Who am I?

I volunteered at my local library in small-town North Carolina from a very young age. One day I picked up Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, cementing my love of science. Sagan’s explanation that we’re all just a speck on the pale blue dot called Earth spoke to me and made me curious to know more. I begged my parents to let me go to Space Camp in Alabama and I went to North Carolina Governor’s School for Physics. I didn’t pursue a scientific career but I always retained my love of science. When I finally became an author in my 40s, I knew I would someday write a sci-fi time travel romance—eventually, A Paradox of Fates was born.

I wrote...

A Paradox of Fates

By Rebecca Hefner,

Book cover of A Paradox of Fates

What is my book about?

Dr. Elaine “Lainey” Randolph was born with one sole purpose: to prevent the past. With her brilliant mind and unwavering spirit, she works tirelessly to solve the equations that will finally unlock the mystery of time travel. Then, she will leave the post-apocalyptic future her grandfather created and travel back in time to prevent his calamitous actions. When handsome military captain Hunter Rhodes appears at Lainey’s remote scientific hub, he offers her protection. But there are strings attached to the mysterious soldier’s proffer, and Lainey finds herself wary of the man who stokes unwelcome longing and desire in her unemotional heart. As Lainey’s band of ragtag scientists and loyal soldiers endeavor to escape the dystopian future, the evil New Establishment threatens to destroy them all.

The Story of Earth

By Robert M. Hazen,

Book cover of The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet

Written with the clarity and zest of Bryson and McPhee, but with the added benefit that Hazen is a professional geologist. I like this book because of how Hazen takes the reader into the process of how a geologist works and thinks. Hazen’s specialty is mineralogy, and his main thesis—that living organisms and minerals evolved together with each shaping the other’s future—makes for a unique and thought-provoking take on the history of our planet. 

Who am I?

When I first crossed the American West nearly 4 decades ago in my ’67 Chevy, it changed my life. I had never imagined mountains built of contorted rock shoved miles into the sky, faults slashing like fresh scars across the landscape, and starkly beautiful deserts where people seemed an afterthought. After many happy years of researching and exploring the West with my geology students, I knew I wanted to tell the story to a larger audience. The result has been three books: Hard Road West, Rough-Hewn Land, and Surf, Sand, and Stone. 

I wrote...

Rough-Hewn Land: A Geologic Journey from California to the Rocky Mountains

By Keith Heyer Meldahl,

Book cover of Rough-Hewn Land: A Geologic Journey from California to the Rocky Mountains

What is my book about?

Unfold a map of North America, and the first thing to grab your eye is the bold shift between the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. In Rough-Hewn Land, Keith Meldahl takes readers on a 1000-mile-long field trip back through geologic time to explore America’s most spectacular and scientifically intriguing landscapes. He places us on the outcrops, rock hammer in hand, to examine the evidence for how these rough-hewn lands came to be. We see California and its gold assembled from pieces of old ocean floor and the relentless movements of the Earth’s tectonic plates. We witness the birth of the Rockies. And we investigate the violent earthquakes that continue to shape the land today. Into the West’s geologic story, Meldahl also weaves its human history, showing us how geologic forces have shaped human experience in the past and how they direct the fate of the West today.

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