Book Review: First Contact by Marc Kaufman

Imagine the proverbial search for the needle in the haystack. Fortunately, anyone searching knows what a needle is. Multiply the strands of hay billions of times and you’re approaching one of the haystacks in which those in search of extraterrestrial life are working. Yet their effort struggles with a fundamental question: How do you define “life”? As science journalist Marc Kaufman points out in a new book, the answer is not as easy as it might seem. More important, the definition ultimately arrived at could mean we already have proof that life exists beyond Earth.

To say that Kaufman’s book, First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth, surveys a huge range of possible haystacks is an understatement. He takes us from beneath the surface of our planet, where scientists hunt for and study “extremophile” microbes that alter our views of what is necessary for life to exist, to observatories and labs searching deep space for extraterrestrial signals or exoplanets, planets outside the solar system. Not only does the book suggest the breadth of the effort, it reveals how each aspect reveals ideas and science never before suspected.

For example, there is the question of what Kaufman calls “a possible shadow biosphere.” Is there life on Earth that was not previously considered life? First Contact takes us to research at an alkaline lake in California that led NASA to announce in December 2010 the discovery of an organism that uses arsenic in its cellular structure, an element that is not one of the six essential elements necessary for life on Earth. If terrestrial “life” can be arsenic-based and extremophiles can exist in circumstances previously thought incapable of supporting life, it becomes that much more likely that life exists off the planet,

In exploring these investigations and their ramifications, Kaufman does what excellent science reporters do — he translates at times difficult concepts into language those of us who barely passed “Bonehead Chemistry” can understand. This is no small feat, given that Kaufman himself was new to the field of astrobiology and, as he puts it, some of those involved in the effort use “a language that can often seem mysterious and impregnable.” Perhaps due to the need to keep the information as accessible as possible, Kaufman tends to a bit of repetition. That is a relatively minor flaw in light of his approach. Whether descending into the South African mines, visiting observatories in Australia or going to California’s Mono Lake, First Contact also introduces the reader to the scientists. Readers aren’t left with the science and what the scientists are studying. Kaufman, science writer and national editor at The Washington Post, also personalizes the researchers and their work.

This also enables readers to better grasp some of the ongoing debates about whether we have already discovered extraterrestrial life. First Contact reviews the questions surrounding whether Mars landers found evidence of life on that planet. Kaufman updates the ongoing debate that began some 15 years ago when scientists suggested their study of a meteorite from Mars contained microfossils of primitive bacteria. He also explores the scientific studies going on beyond Earth, Mars and the solar system. He explains how scientists search for exoplanets and how older instruments utilize new technology and computing power to crunch massive amounts of data to plot one or two points. Even long-recognized efforts introduce debates. Thus, when SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence using radio telescopes, makes an appearance, Kaufman introduces readers to the question of whether it is wise for us to broadcast or announce our presence to possible extraterrestrial intelligence.

Even if we don’t reach a universal definition of life first, Kaufman suggests we may be on the cusp of one of the greatest “Eureka!” moments in human history. Given how how broad-based the search for extraterrestrial life has become, the fundamental question may become what its discovery means for human society.

Making life from nonlife has turned out to be extraordinarily hard.

Mark Kaufman, First Contact

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