Two weeks ago I wrote about Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach, which I was only partway into. I finished it Tuesday night. What a puzzling marvel of a book, bubbling over with stories and ideas, narrated polyphonically (by design, though it takes a while to catch on, as characters are introduced briefly, then dropped for 50 pages, only to return more boldly). I was tempted to start in next on Elie’s first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, his 2004 study of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. On further reflection, I decided I need a break.
What next? I looked over my growing backlog of novels, the most recent addition being Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. And my history backlog. I tried out Amazon samples of a few books. Last night, on seeing Amanda Foreman’s review of the new J.K. Rowling novel in tomorrow’s edition of the NYT Sunday book review, I was reminded that I’ve been wanting to read Foreman’s A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War, which the NYT had on its list of ten best books of 2011. Foreman is apparently quite the storyteller. But it’s such a long book.
From there I went over to the online version of today’s WSJ and came upon astronomer Mike Brown’s review of Michael Lemonick’s new book, Mirror Earth: The Search for our Planet’s Twin. I hadn’t imagined I was in the market for a popular science book, but Brown made me curious.
Mr. Lemonick has collected nearly all of the leading astronomers involved in the search for extrasolar planets—more than a dozen “exoplaneteers,” as he calls them—following them to mountain tops, lakeside lodges, roofs of buildings, and scattered offices around the country, to get them to explain what they’re doing and why. “Why” is particularly interesting, and most admit to the same basic motivation: finding life. Bill Borucki, the head of NASA’s planet-finding Kepler mission, wanted to “solve the problem of whether there’s life in the galaxy.” David Charbonneau, who is searching for tiny planets around tiny stars, desperately wants to know if there are “examples of life that arose independently from the life on the Earth.” Matt Holman, however, who finds multiple planets by their subtle gravitational interactions with one another, charmingly admits that he’s “motivated by precision”: With planetary dynamics, “you can make very careful, detailed predictions and detailed measurements and you can write down the equations of motion and I like that.”
Mr. Lemonick’s interactions with these scientists is the overwhelming strength of this very human story, but he also clearly explains the diverse tactics astronomers are using to try to find Earth twins. Some stare at 100,000 stars all at once hoping to pick out a fleeting dip in brightness as a perfectly aligned planet passes in front of its host star. Others carefully monitor individual stars for the minuscule push and pull that an Earthlike planet would exert. A few shift the entire focus to stars much smaller than the sun, where the visible effects of a planet would be correspondingly larger.
I read the free Amazon sample. I bought the book. I continued reading, and by early this morning, I was two-fifths through.
It’s easy reading. And fascinating. Plus, I even know two of the featured astronomers. I’ll soon have to decide whether to tackle A World on Fire. Or maybe Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War. Meanwhile, I’m having fun exploring the universe with Lemonick.