Among travel books, what makes a masterpiece? Sure, we love the writer who describes a location or culture in stunning, heart-flipping prose. But what debt of thanks and praise do we owe the yarner who completely transports us to places we will never ever get to visit in our lifetime? Take, for instance, outer space…
Trefil, James and Michael Summers. Imagined Life: A Speculative Journey Among the Exoplanets in Search of Intelligent Aliens, Ice Creatures, and Supergravity Animals. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2019. Print.
Ice-tunneling merfolk. Flying dragons on Super Earths. These are only a couple of the wondrous life forms the authors speculate on in their sweeping exploration of the universe’s exoplanets. For decades, astronomers hypothesized these planets must exist. Other stars, besides our sun, must have other planets circling them.
And then a few years ago, we discovered a few.
Then a few more.
Then many more.
And more and more.
Astrophysicists now estimate hundreds of trillions of exoplanets whirl around the universe as we speak—more than the number of stars!
This book reviews what we know so far. It then shares where and how astrobiologists search for life out there. Trefil and Summers then use biology, chemistry, and physics fundamentals to speculate on what formations life could assume on water worlds, ice spheres, Super Earths, and tidally locked Red Dwarfs. And before you ask—no, Red Dwarfs aren’t sunburned garden gnomes obsessed with surfing.
My favorite feature in the text has to be NASA’s retro-styled travel posters from their Exoplanet Travel Bureau. Each poster highlights an actual exoplanet plus its must-see sights and must-do activities available to human life forms. Posters also share fascinating scientific facts about the planet and how its discovery influences the trajectory of ongoing space research. (Ehem. My birthday is coming up in October if anyone is wondering what to get…)
Rarely has my travel bug been so buzzed. Viewing each poster is like downing a shot of rocket fuel! Reading this book only doubled the effect. As a relatively new and increasingly rugged Coloradan, I mentally packed my bags and readied gear. I was (and am) ready to hike, mountain bike, and camp on any of the Kepler 186 planets or the TRAPPIST-1 system.
As travel books go, this one is a standout gem. The authors present complex data and concepts clearly. Their tone is enthusiastic and engaging. They adhere to speculation without veering off into sensationalism. And throughout, they make one vital point tantalizingly clear: when we consider how life persists nearly everywhere on Earth, it’s hard to banish the possibility of life’s existence elsewhere out there.