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Review: Astrobiology: A Brief Introduction

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Astrobiology: A Brief Introduction (2nd edition)
by Kevin W. Plaxco and Michael Gross
Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2011
softcover, 352 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-4214-0096-8

Some fields of study don’t run the risk of quickly outdating their textbooks. A book written a few decades ago about classical mechanics, for example, would still be useful today. Other fields of inquiry advance more rapidly, though, turning textbooks into doorstops within a matter of years. That’s especially true in the multidisciplinary field of astrobiology, where research ranging from the study of life in extreme habitats on Earth to the search for potential abodes of life beyond Earth is quickly progressing. It’s little wonder, then, that just five years after the publication of Astrobiology: A Brief Introduction (see “Review: Astrobiology: A Brief Introduction”, The Space Review, September 18, 2006), authors Kevin Plaxco and Michael Gross are back with a second, and substantially updated, edition of that book.

Plaxco and Gross have extensively updated and expanded the book from the first edition, adding more than 60 pages compared to the original.

At first glance, the second edition of the book looks very similar to the first. It has the same structure as the original, including nearly the same chapters (the second edition has a brief epilogue that the first edition lacked, the only difference between the two editions.) The covers are also nearly the same, with the new version using green text for the title instead of the orange text in the original. That might lead one to conclude that the second edition is only superficially different than the first.

That conclusion, though, isn’t supported by the book’s contents. Plaxco and Gross have extensively updated and expanded the book from the first edition, adding more than 60 pages compared to the original. While some sections of the new edition are pretty much the same as the original, others have benefited from updates, such as findings from NASA’s Mars missions and other spacecraft, as well as terrestrial research. (The two devote a roughly one-page sidebar to last year’s “arsenic life” discovery and its implications for astrobiology, but only tangentially allude to the controversy surrounding it by writing that “many—perhaps even most—experts remain unconvinced.”) Other changes are a more subtle, reflecting more gradual developments: the first edition noted that “the scientific consensus seems to have tilted away” from the claims that Martian meteorite ALH84001 harbors evidence of past Martian life; the second edition now says that consensus “seems to have tilted fairly strongly away” from that conclusion, reflecting five years’ worth of research that has not bolstered the case of Mars life proponents.

As in the first edition, the authors cover a wide range of scientific ground in Astrobiology: A Brief Introduction, from astronomy and planetary science to organic chemistry and biology. That breadth is necessary, though, to provide a full introduction to a field as diverse, and as dynamic, as astrobiology. The second edition of Astrobiology: A Brief Introduction does succeed in doing so—at least until more rounds of discoveries on and off Earth in the next several years necessitate a third edition.