Science writer Billings debuts with this examination of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence and the surprising perspective it provides in thinking about mankind and the deep-time history of Earth.
The author bases his work on interviews and discussions with leaders from successive generations of the quest to find extraplanetary life. Frank Drake, who was an organizer of the original 1961 conference that set parameters for the project, concluded that “the universe, on balance, was a rather hospitable place, one that surely must be overflowing with living worlds.” Among the participants was Carl Sagan, who would go on to popularize the search through his PBS show Cosmos. In 1989 and 1990, Sagan showed that the technological methods then employed could discriminate the Earth from the moon using the scanning devices on NASA probes. Billings' interlocutors include, among others, Greg Laughlin, who worked on “the wealth of Neptune-mass planets” revealed by NASA's Kepler project, and James Kasting, who developed models that could assist in the extrapolation of information about the composition of exoplanets, planetlike objects orbiting distant stars, from data received. These scientists have extended technology's frontiers and enabled motion at a scale of 1 meter per second on the surface of a star many light years away to be detected and analyzed. Now, exoplanets can be cataloged in the thousands, their compositions analyzed. Billings’ accounts of arguments about inferences drawn, and even the existence of objects apparently observed, are fascinating. Kasting and Laughlin both provide insight on the geological and biological history of Earth, as well as current thinking about how life, and intelligence, may have developed. Billings documents how arbitrary changes in political priorities and funding reductions have wreaked havoc with the research.
A great outline of the subject, bringing what's often treated as science fiction down to Earth, where it can be understood.