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When the discoveries of the first confirmed extra-solar planets and evidence for ancient life in a meteorite from Mars were announced within six months of each other in 1996, a spate of titles on the subject of life in the Universe was inevitable. Fortunately, this book by Lemonick (The Light at the Edge of the Universe) favors careful reporting over sensationalism, and joins Ken Croswell's Planet Quest and Seth Shostak's Sharing the Universe in conveying both the excitement and the challenge of the famous "Drake Equation," which makes a concise mathematical prediction of the number of intelligent, communicating civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy.
Though most scientists believe the number of such civilizations is substantial -- from a few to a few thousand -- we have yet to detect any. Where Croswell discusses the colorful history of planetary discovery and Shostak discusses the so far unsuccessful but tantalizing search for extraterrestrial intelligence, Lemonick explores the Drake Equation term by term, describing in clear and delicious detail both the human and scientific stories of the technological wizards whose work has taken us to the edge of discovery of other Earth-like worlds.
"The ancient mystery of life in the universe has finally, after uncounted thousands of years, begun a transformation from a religious, philosophical, purely intellectual question to a scientific one," he writes. "Soon -- quite possibly within a decade or two -- it may be solved." Although cautious, scientific readers may argue about the time-frame of that speculation, few would dispute the power of this "work of journalism rather than ... scholarship" to carry to the reader to the frontiers of scientific knowledge, technological creativity, and human curiosity.