Book Review

Diana Maier

Giovanni Bignami:
We are the Martians: Connecting Cosmology with Biology.

Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Springer; 2012 edition (June 7, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 884702465X
ISBN-13: 978-8847024656
Price: 32.05 EUR

Life, the Universe and Everything

Are we alone in the universe or are there millions of alien civilisations out there? The Italian astronomer Giovanni Bignami presents what we know about the time between the Big Bang and the genesis of life on Earth.

As chairman of the ESA Space Science Advisory Committee, Giovanni Bignami helped to launch the Ariane rocket into space. As a non-fiction author, the Italian physicist and astronomer dabbles in teaching his readers basics about the universe and the origin of life. Bignami’s book We are the Martians contains neither awesome pictures about galactic phenomena nor ordinary knowledge about astronomy. But by connecting cosmology with biology, he manages to inspire his readers from the first page to the last. Bignami describes in simple and colourful words how the cosmos that we know arose and sends us on a journey from the beginning of the universe until today.

But before we can start to explore the universe, a little battle has to be fought, namely a match between man and universe. The book begins with a football match that describes how our perspective of our position in the universe has changed over the centuries. This is an extraordinary and picturesque introduction that you might not expect and it demonstrates in an easy way how our search for alien life began.

When the cosmos was grapefruit-sized

After this overture, the author builds up the universe with all of its components – light, matter, stars and planetary systems – until our planet, the earth, arises. To do this he uses figurative descriptions so that the reader can easily follow his explanations. Time, size, energy and the indication of quantity, for example, are explained in a manner that allows everybody to grasp the dimensions of the universe and its components. Did you know that there was a time when the cosmos was the size of a grapefruit? Or that the amount of 1044 J, the energy used in the explosion of a supernova, is the same as all the energy that the sun will emit during its whole life? Or that there are more stars in the universe, to be exact 1022 stars, than grains of sand on our earth? Beside these lively descriptions, Bignami exhibits a sense of humor. Complex molecules don’t want to be tanned because of their weak chemical bonds, he informs us. And it’s also important to know that we would be toast if our sun had more mass.

Terrestrian scientist, presenting martian anatomy. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Well, the universe has formed and the search for alien planets begins. Bignami describes how the techniques of detecting an extrasolar planet evolved and how different parameters like mass, temperature and distance to its star must be appropriate to allow the evolution of life on a planet.

Physical contact with the universe

The following chapters are about contact astronomy. Contact astronomy? Well, we can come into contact with the universe in three different ways: through meteorites, which constantly hit Earth; through space travel performed by spacecrafts; and through comet dust, which is collected in space and examined afterwards on Earth.

It is also interesting to learn that mankind has left a lot of garbage not only in landfill and the Earth’s oceans, but also the universe. Bignami lists the anthropogenic objects, including missing probes, that we have taken to different planets like Mars and Venus as well as to asteroids and a comet. They are still there, astronomical trash after they have accomplished their purpose.

And then Bignami jumps into the development of life, or, as he calls it, “from bricks to house”. He tries to give a definition of what life is and how it began, followed by the saga of the Martians, which started in the 19th century and culminated in the famous radio broadcast The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles. Finally, he mentions our efforts at listening to signals from far away planets, by decades-long projects such as SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Correcting popular misconceptions

At the end, knowledge gaps that have to be closed are listed and 15 established points of view about the universe are challenged (for example, the widespread convinction that the universe is “infinitely big”).

Some reviewers complained that Bignami explains many relationships only superficially or not at all. Others were displeased by the excessive amount of information on only 152 pages. Your Lab Times reviewer disagrees. We are the Martians describes astronomy in a thrilling and engrossing way. Complex circumstances, like the nature of a black hole or Drake´s equation, are explained in a manner that even laymen can understand. This book is the beautiful outcome of a quick side-trip into a topic that has fascinated mankind for thousands of years.

Letzte Änderungen: 17.09.2013