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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece by Marguerite Rigoglioso (Palgrave) Greek religion is filled with strange sexual artifacts––stories of mortal women's couplings with gods, rituals like the  basilinna's “marriage” to Dionysus, beliefs in the impregnating power of snakes and deities, and more. In this provocative study, Marguerite Rigoglioso suggests these are remnants of an early Greek cult of divine birth, not unlike that of Egypt. Scouring myth, legend, and history from a female-oriented perspective, she argues that many in the highest echelons of Greek civilization believed non-ordinary conception was the only means possible of bringing forth true leaders, and that special virgin priestesshoods were dedicated to this practice. Her book adds a unique perspective to our understanding of antiquity, and has significant implications for the study of Christianity and other religions in which divine birth claims are central. More

The Search for Life in the Universe (Third Edition) by Donald Goldsmith, Tobias Owen (University Science Books) Long recognized as the "Gold Standard" text for astrobiology courses, The Search for Life in the Universe now appears in a completely revised and updated Third Edition. This book engages students in astronomy by presenting a great, unsolved mystery: How likely is life beyond earth, and how can we find it if it exists? The text covers the fundamentals of astronomy and astrophysics, including the discovery of more than 55 planets around other stars, and also provides an overview of biology, geology, evolution, and the possibilities of interstellar travel and communication. Written for readers with no background in mathematics, the book includes 24 color insert pages and brilliantly rendered illustrations by Jon Lomberg.

Excerpt: Astrobiology, the science that deals with life elsewhere in the universe, continues to attract the attention of students, the public, and those scientists who enjoy letting their minds roam freely through several disciplines that remain an essential part of searching for life beyond Earth. Since the previous edition of this book appeared, a single rock from Mars stunned the world with the tantalizing possibility that we had found the first evidence for ex­traterrestrial life. Although this conclusion now seems dubious, no doubt exists that the last few years have also brought the first sure discoveries of planets in orbit around sunlike stars. In fact, astronomers have now found so many of these planets (nearly 60) that the thrill has temporarily diminished. That excitement over the de­tection of new worlds will return quickly on the day when we find not Jupiter-sized gas giants, the only type of planets that our present techniques can detect, but the first extrasolar planets similar to our Earth.

Two decades ago, when the first edition of this book appeared, any textbook dealing with astrobiology seemed destined for modest use, simply because this subject draws on the knowledge and methods of many disparate fields of science and even sociology. We were surprised and pleased by the large number of instruc­tors who have happily adopted our goal of teaching the excitement of science by fo­cusing on some of its major unsolved issues, despite not themselves being experts in all the fields of science involved. We can now see more clearly that astrobiology's appeal to students can easily override the fact that this field of study requires scien­tific speculation; indeed we suspect that some instructors, like ourselves, delight in showing students that the joy of science lies even more in what we don't know than in what we do. To teach critical thinking, few subjects can match the search for life in the universe, whose topics range from determining the lifetimes of stars, through attempts to judge hypotheses about the origin and evolution of life on Earth, to the assessment of the most incredible reports of extraterrestrial visitors to our planet.

This book can serve as a textbook for any introductory astronomy course with a focus on planetary science and the search for life in the universe, and for many bi­ology and geology courses that choose to emphasize the cosmic aspects of their fields of interest. Students in courses taught by ourselves and our colleagues seem nearly unanimous in welcoming an interdisciplinary course that centers on the search for life, hardly surprising in view of the public's interest in the subject. That interest, fanned by sensational movies and television programs, starts with the human prejudice that we must be the center of the universe, the natural subject of at­tention of any extraterrestrial civilization. Teaching a course on extraterrestrial life takes students along a journey that science has already made, from the belief that we on Earth are immensely special, perhaps unique, to the realization that our planet orbits a representative star in the outer reaches of a typical giant spiral galaxy, with millions of possible sites for life. How can we realistically judge whether life has actually developed on some of those sites? If civilizations have appeared elsewhere in the Milky Way, some of them may be far more advanced than ours and may or may not be interested in making contact with us. The intellectual jour­ney culminates with an assessment of how hard we may have to work if we hope to find other civilizations with whom to exchange our views of life, and of how long we may have to wait before any such exchange occurs.

In preparing this new edition of our book, we have changed the order of the in­troductory astronomy chapters (chapters 2—6) so that they follow the conventional sequence, reaching outward from the Earth to the universe at large. We have re­vised the biology chapters (7—10) to include new approaches to understanding the origin and evolution of life on Earth, and to achieve greater clarity in presenting the relationship between the development of life on our planet and elsewhere in the cosmos. The planetary-astronomy chapters (11—15) reflect the new results from spacecraft and other investigations of the solar system, and a new chapter (17) pre­sents the discovery of extrasolar planets. Chapters 16—22 carry us through the universe on a quest to answer the question of how we might find intelligent civilizations, if they exist, and what conclusions we can draw from the fact that we have yet to find definitive proof that life exists anywhere beyond the Earth.

The New Science of Astrobiology: From Genesis of the Living Cell to Evolution of Intelligent Behavior in the Universe by Julián Chela-Flores (Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht) (Publisher link

The New Science of Astrobiology: - From Genesis of the Living Cell to Evolution of Intelligent by Julian Chela-Flores (Kluwer Academic Publishers) Astrobiology is a very broad interdisciplinary field covering the origin, evolution, distribution, and destiny of life in the universe, as well as the design and implementation of missions for solar system exploration. A review covering its complete spectrum has been missing at a level accessible even to the non-specialist. The last section of the book consists of a supplement, including a glossary, notes, and tables, which represent highly condensed `windows' into research ranging from basic sciences to earth and life sciences, as well as the humanities. These additions should make The New Science of Astrobiology accessible to a wide readership: scientists, humanists, and the general reader will have an opportunity to participate in one of the most rewarding activities of contemporary culture.

Easy to read the volume is especially vivid in its general description of scientific observation and theory showing clearly the interdisciplinary nature of this science as well as its preliminary results.

Author Summary:  The initial work for this book began in 1996. It was intended as a set of notes for a lecture to which I was kindly invited by the international School of Plasma Physics "Piero Caldirola" (Varenna, Lake Como, Italy). On that occasion the School chose the topic: "Reflections on the Birth of the Universe: Science, Philosophy and Theology.

The 43 pages of the Varenna lecture were subsequently considerably modified thanks to the kind invitation of the directors of the third volume of the series on Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, which dealt with the subject of "Evolutionary and Molecular Biology: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action"'. That activity was co‑sponsored by the Vatican Observatory, Vatican City State, and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California. The book was published in 1998. In the following three years I have endeavored to extend the scope of my presentation of the new science of astrobiology.

I have attempted, as far as possible, to organize the multiple topics that should be covered in a text facing the almost impossible task of sketching the main aspects of astrobiology, namely:

• the origin
• evolution
• distribution
• destiny of life in the universe.

In BOOK 1 we began the first of the major topics of astrobiology, the origin of life in the universe. We introduced chemical evolution as a process that comes at the end of cosmic evolution (Chapter 1). This, in turn, takes us to the study of prebiotic evolution (Chapter 2). We also undertook a brief evaluation of the sources of the possible precursors of the macromolecules that would enter a chemical evolution pathway towards the macromolecules of life.

In BOOK 2 we introduced the topic of evolution of life in the universe, by discussing the processes that have taken life on Earth from the age of the prokaryotes to the origin of eukaryotes and, eventually, to the evolution of intelligent behavior. This work was covered in preparation for the introduction of the problem of searching for the evolution of intelligent behavior on other worlds, a topic which was developed in chapters 10 to 12.

In BOOK 3 we took up the distribution and destiny of life in the universe. We have restricted ourselves to the main successes of exobiology: the study of Mars, Europa and Titan. In the second part of Book 3, we touched upon bioastronomy, which deals with the study of environments for the possible distribution of beings that might be the product of evolution of intelligent behavior on other worlds.

The concluding section of the book included three general topics: firstly, the search for new planets in other solar systems; secondly, a brief review of the programs in radio astronomy that are searching for extraterrestrial life and, finally, the exploration of what we know about life on Earth, in order to answer one of the central questions of astrobiology, namely: is the evolution of intelligent behavior universal?

The final chapters were reserved for the deeper cultural implications of astrobiology, concerning the destiny of life in the universe. We divided the topics discussed into theological, philosophical and historical issues that are relevant to astrobiology.
These additions should make The New Science of Astrobiology accessible to a wide readership: scientists, humanists, and the general reader will have an opportunity to participate in one of the most rewarding activities of contemporary culture.

Foreword; J. Seckbach. Preface. Book 1: Origin of Life in the Universe. Introduction: What is astrobiology? Part I: Chemical Evolution: Foundations for the Study of the Origin of Life in the Universe. 1. From cosmic to chemical evolution. 2. From chemical to prebiotic evolution. 3. Sources for life's origins: A search for biogenic elements. Part II: Prebiotic Evolution: The Birth of Biomolecules. 4. From prebiotic evolution to single cells. Book 2: Evolution of Life in the Universe. 5. From the age of prokaryotes to the origin of eukaryotes. 6. Eukaryogenesis and evolution of intelligent behavior. Book 3: Distribution and Destiny of Life in the Universe. Part I: Exobiology: Scientific Bases for the Study of the Life of Other Worlds. 7. On the possibility of biological evolution on Mars. 8. On the possibility of biological evolution on Europa. 9. On the possibility of chemical evolution on Titan. Part II: Bioastronomy: The Study of Astronomical Phenomena Related to Life. 10. How different would life be elsewhere? 11. The search for evolution of extraterrestrial intelligent behavior. 12. Is the evolution of intelligent behavior universal? Part III: Cultural Foundations for the Discussion of the Destiny of Life in the Universe. 13. Deeper implications of the search for extraterrestrial life. 14. Philosophical implications of the search for extraterrestrial civilizations. 15. Back to the beginning of astrobiology. 16. Recapitulation. Book 4: Supplement. Notes and References. Glossary. Supplementary Reading. Indices. About the Author.

Stardust: Supernovae and Life --- The Cosmic Connection by John Gribbin (Yale University Press) We are made of stardust--and so is all life as we know it. Every chemical element on earth except hydrogen and helium has been scattered across the universe in great stellar explosions and recycled into new stars, planets, and parts of us. In this engrossing book, John and Mary Gribbin explain how developments in astronomy from the 1920s to the present day have led to this startling realization and to a new understanding of the relationship between the Universe and the Earth. The new preface discusses recent scientific developments that confirm the idea that life must be a common occurrence across the universe.
We are made of stardust-and so is all life as we know it. All the chemical elements on earth except hydrogen-including the ones in our bodies-have been processed inside stars, scattered across the universe in great stellar explosions, and recycled to become new stars, planets, and parts of us.In this engrossing book, John and Mary Gribbin relate the developments in twentieth-century astronomy that have led to this shattering realization. They begin their account in the 1920s, when astronomers discovered that the oldest stars are chiefly composed of the primordial elements hydrogen and helium, produced in the birth of the universe in a Big Bang. They then describe the seminal work of the 1950s and 1960s, which unlocked the secret of how elements are "cooked" by nuclear fusion inside stars. The heart of the story is their discussion of supernovae, only recently understood as great stellar explosions in which the resulting ash is spread far and wide through the cosmos, forming new generations of stars, planets, and people. Focusing on the relationship between the universe and the Earth, the authors eloquently explain how the physical structure of the universe has produced conditions ideal for life.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: A Philosophical Inquiry by David Lamb (Routledge) critically evaluates claims concerning the status of SETI as a genuine scientific research program and examines the attempts to establish contact with other intelligent life forms in the past thirty years. Are we alone in the universe? Is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence a waste of resources or a genuine contribution to scientific research? And how should we communicate with other life‑forms if we make contact?

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has been given fresh impetus in recent years following developments in space science which go beyond speculation. The evidence that many stars are accompanied by planets; the detection of organic material in the circumstellar disks of which planets are created; and claims regarding microfossils on Martian meteorites have all led to many new empirical searches.

Against the background of these dramatic new developments in science, The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence evaluates claims concerning the status of SETI as a genuine scientific research program and examines the attempts to establish contact with other intelligent life‑forms of the past thirty years. David Lamb also assesses competing theories on the origin of life on Earth, discoveries of ex‑solar planets and proposals for space colonies as well as the technical and ethical issues bound up with them. Most importantly, he considers the benefits and drawbacks of communication with new life‑forms: how we should communicate and whether we could.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is an important contribution to a field that until now has not been critically examined by philosophers. David Lamb argues that current searches should continue and that space exploration and SETI are essential aspects of the transformative nature of science.

Life Beyond Earth by Timothy Ferris (Simon & Schuster) The search for life beyond Earth takes the human mind and spirit back down long corridors of cosmic history, probing the ancient questions of who we are and where we came from. Life Beyond Earth is the story of this exploration.
A stunning blend of words and photographs crafted by Timothy Ferris, whom The Christian Science Monitor called "the best popular science writer in the English language today Life Beyond Earth combines more than 100 beautiful color illustrations with Ferris's rich, thought-provoking text and observations from such leading scientists as Freeman Dyson, Richard Gott, and Stephen Jay Gould. Drawn from Ferris's critically acclaimed, two-hour PBS documentary, the book covers broad swaths of time and space, from the South Pacific explorations of Charles Darwin and Captain James Cook to the latest space-probe searches for life and organic matter on Mars, Europa, and Titan.
Ferris fans and newcomers to his work alike will celebrate this, his most ambitious picture book since the classic Galaxies, which was hailed by Isaac Asimov as "a very good candidate for the most beautiful book in the world." As James Gleick, author of Chaos, remarked about Ferris's most recent bestseller, The Whole Shebang, "What luck that the universe has Tim Ferris to report on its condition!"

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