Cover Image: The Possibility of Life

The Possibility of Life

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date:

Member Reviews

Is there life beyond Earth?

That’s the question Jaime Green sets out to answer in this book. She does so by examining alien life in pop culture - from Star Trek to Avatar to other books, movies, and tv shows. She examines science fiction through science - research, interviews with experts in the field, and big questions. I found the writing to be very accessible for the subject matter, something that a nonfiction newbie would be able to read and understand. I thought this was a fun, interesting read and very educational.
Was this review helpful?
Jaime Green tackles the premise of a question that has tantalized humanity for centuries in the fascinating The Possibility of Life: Science, Imagination, and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos. Drawing on decades of research in SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and from interviews Green conducted with eminent scientists (Abel Méndez, Katie Slivensky, Jason Wright, and more), each of the book's six chapters delves into one factor underpinning the possibility of finding life beyond our big, blue planet. But the book is not just a glimpse into an often-misunderstood area of scientific research; it is an exploration of the very meaning of life, humanity, personhood, consciousness, and existence.

Green uses classics of science fiction (such as Carl Sagan's Contact, James L. Cambias's A Darkling Sea, and Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life") as a touchstone through which to think about concepts like evolution, intelligence, technology, and the forms that extraterrestrial intelligent life might take aside from humanoid. As she points out, much of science fiction that is focused on extraterrestrial life is, in fact, concerned with questions of human existence, and her book about potential extraterrestrial life, likewise, reveals much about humanity's existence and concept of itself. Green's writing discusses intensely complex ideas in clear and engaging ways, and is endearingly childlike in its wonder and awe. Readers can't help but be swept along in her curiosity and excitement.
Was this review helpful?
Is there life beyond Earth or are we alone in the universe? Would we recognize that life if it did exist? Those questions and more are raised in Jaime Green's new book The Possibility of Life: Science, Imagination, and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. I know little about astronomy or the "astro" sciences - I can barely identify Orion in the sky. But this isn't a purely astronomy book. It isn't even a science-only book. Green guides us through evolution, biochemistry, technology, physics, etc with forays into fiction - both literary and pop culture television and movies - all in an attempt to understand life here on Earth so that we may one day discover if there is life "out there".

The structure of the book - jumping between science and science fiction - makes the book accessible and enjoyable. I'm a big Star Trek fan so including a New Generation episode in the opening chapter quickly engaged me. Green also deftly tackles the more complex issues of life and the science of studying it. Some of the science I've studied myself, but it felt just out of my grasp - Green made it understandable. And it led me to have independent thoughts on the subjects she touches on - it gave rise to my own questions and reasonings. 

I think my reading list is much longer now. I don't read a lot of science fiction, but there were several mentioned that I think would be excellent suggestions for my post-apocalyptic book club. In particular, Flood by Stephen Baxter would be right up our alley. I went looking for it since Green described it as a novella but when I found it on Amazon it is listed as being over 500 pages. I might still suggest though.

Before reading this book, I didn't think a lot about whether or not there was life beyond our own planet. It's still not a top thought for me, but I liked how the search for other life has led people to look closer at our own world. We are still discovering new life on Earth - species we had not known about or are now better able to distinguish between similar yet separate species.

The Possibility of Life is not boring or dry. It's an enjoyable book that gave me a lot to think about and a better understanding of life. If you like science, science fiction, or just curious about whether we are alone in the universe, then you should pick up this book.

My review was published at Girl Who Reads -
Was this review helpful?
In The Possibility of Life, journalist Jaime Green takes us on an expansive and open-minded exploration of whether or not life may have formed elsewhere in the universe and if so, what that life might be like.  If this were only that book, it would be well worth reading. But Green makes two choices that elevate her work beyond a good exobiology book easily recommended and into a fantastic medley of science, history, culture, and personal experience that is enthusiastically recommended. 

One is her insight that our search for life, and our imaginings about what that life might be like is as much about us (if not more so) as it is about “them” (or even “THEM!” if you think one form might be giant ants).  In other words, no matter how far out away from Earth we cast our gaze, what we look into is not the vast star-filled sea, but a mirror.  One that reveals our fears, our hopes, our biases, our delusions, our loneliness, our wish to be better than we are. One that too is big enough to show us not just our own image but our world’s, and awaken us to the wonderment and beauty of the “alien” (i.e. non-human) life we share this planet with in all its varied glory:   dolphins and bats and flowers and bacteria and mitochondria and birds that used to be dinosaurs. We sit amidst a feast of life, and Green’s book begs us to do more than just nibble at the bread rolls.

The other authorial choice she makes is to insert herself fully into the narrative, not simply as explorer and interviewer but as a fan. Not simply of science, though she’s obviously that as well, but of science fiction. After all, as she tells us on page two, if her dad is the one who, in teaching her the names of the stars and constellations, was the first to make the vastness of the universe seem a little less scary, what truly made her view it as a “promise, not a threat, because it might be full of benevolent creatures,” was when she began watching Star Trek: The Next Generation.

That’s the first but far from the last reference to science fiction, as she weaves the genre throughout The Possibility of Life, citing a host of writers (classic and contemporary and ranging across gender and race) such as Gene Roddenberry,  Carl Sagan, Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, N.K. Jemisin, and Olaf Stapledon in referencing works like Solaris, Contact, various Star Treks, The Broken Earth trilogy, and “Story of Your Life”/Arrival. She does this because:
Science fiction is more than entertainment, it a generative act that creates new possibilities of life beyond Earth, as valid and potent as anything we might conjure up in the lab. Through fiction we can move beyond likelihoods and binary outcomes to look instead at what our imaginations do with the limitless possibilities of outer space and, crucially, ask what that might mean.

Weaving in speculative fiction also makes sense because for most of our history out thoughts on possible life out there was based on speculation only, since science is a relatively recent concept/activity.   Green’s first chapter takes a quick tour of that historical thought, noting how it was the Renaissance that “cracked open the cosmos, filling it with possibilities,” as humanity realized Earth was not the center of the universe, that the wandering stars were planets, and that the sky was filled with stars, “fat with potential.”  First Copernicus, then Galileo, and then “a flood of other new notions . .. . the plurality of worlds flourished as both a scientific idea and a fictional inspiration.” 

Somewhat ironically, it was our scientific progress that narrowed our vision. The more we learned of life here  (chapter one has an excellently clear and concise overview of current thinking on life’s beginnings here) of what the other planets were like, the more it seemed both life and planets were rarities, if not one-offs. A view that was mostly consensus until relatively recently.

Chapter two covers the earliest discoveries of actual exoplanets and then, as both our technology and methodology improved, the explosion in number and type. Green explains as well that as we consider life, we should broaden our view beyond simply Earth-like planets around a Sol-like sun, with the various criteria we associate with life here (plate tectonics, a large moon, etc.).  She notes, for instance, that less than ten percent of the stars in the Milky Way are like our own, and that galaxy is filled with far more red dwarfs and white dwarfs, each with their own host of planets where life may have “found a way.” And don’t forget the exomoons as well!

After dealing with historical perspective and place, Green turns to life itself. Chapter Three asks if life elsewhere would evolve as it does here, either similarly via convergent evolution or at the least, via the same evolutionary mechanisms, such as natural selection (she also looks at the debate over whether life would form the same way even here on Earth if, in Gould’s famed question of what would happen if we could “wind back the tape to the early days [and] let it play again from an identical starting point.” Gould says the chances that the movie plays out the same way are “vanishingly small,” though that’s far from a monolithic viewpoint. 

After considering animal life in general, chapter four turns to intelligent life and “people”, though here Green starts not with extraterrestrial life but instead with our attempts to discover “intelligence” (however that’s defined) and possibly self-awareness here on our own planet in our studies of creatures such as dolphins and monkeys. Green is careful to point out though that a barrier exists that honestly makes it impossible to truly understand  anything that is alien, citing Nagel’s essay on bats where he writes about their echolocation for instance that “there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine.”  And from there he says it holds equally true that he cannot fathom “the subjective character of the experience of a person deaf and blind from birth.” And this basic reality, Green says, means that “A truly alien alien . . . is so incomprehensible that stories about them just become stories about human beings.” (there’s that mirror again). 

After imagining, or trying to, an alien consciousness, chapter five scales it up to imagining alien technology and what signs we might be able to find of it (say, if the aliens were all living in a Dyson Sphere). What happens if we do find it (or they find ours) is the focus of Chapter six — “Contact”, a chapter title the cover both the concept and the Sagan book/film. It explores the SETI program and variations of it, what form contact might take (as well as the question would we even know if we’d been contacted), and what the repercussions might be (if Contact is the happier viewpoint on what follows contact, the other sci-fi work discussed here, Mary Doria Russel’s The Sparrow is the darker version). Outside of those two works, Green looks particularly at first contact stories from Latin American and African authors, works one such writer argues could/should be called “second contact, so present is historical first contact in their author’s minds.” One aspect of contact of course is language, and Green delves into alien languages in this chapter as well, referencing Klingon of course, but also Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” the basis for the movie Arrival.

From how we might decipher alien languages, Green turns to our we ourselves try/have tried to communicate, detailing the plaques on our space probes and current attempts to come up with a means of warning people tens of thousands of years in the future away from radioactive waste sites. To imagine the magnitude of that necessary task, imagine the difficulty you had in understanding Shakespeare (less than half a century), the greater difficulty with Chaucer (less than a century) and the impossibility of Old English if your high school English teacher ever played you a digital recording (or tape, or record) of Beowulf. 

Green, who has always been nothing but crystal clear, engaging, humorous, and fun throughout the book, here at the end waxes more lyrical as she our desperate shouts into the void (or maybe not void) and weaves in as well that childhood favorite, Madeleine L’Engle. It’s both an inspiring and a moving close to a fantastic work of non-fiction. One, as you might imagine, is highly recommended for science fans, space fans, and science fiction fans (the Venn diagram is strong with this one).
Was this review helpful?
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an ARC of this novel, releasing today!

The Possibility of Life gives a great overview of the scientific search for life in the universe, starting with the historical development of the science of astronomy and early theories about Earth's role in the universe, and following through to modern theories and even future possibilities. Throughout, Green weaves in references to science fiction media, giving a cultural grounding to the more abstract scientific sections. 

I really enjoyed this one! The science can be complex (I did have to reread a few sections to really get a grasp on some of the concepts) but Green's writing reads really well overall, and I loved the scifi references I already knew and maybe even more loved the ones I didn't (new reading recommendations!). Overall a really excellent nonfiction read; happy to recommend this!
Was this review helpful?
From Galileo to the current search for exoplanets, this entertaining and easy-to-read book traces the history of the human fascination with the cosmos and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Including examples from science fiction, it reveals the cultural and scientific implications of this quest—and what is says about humanity. There's a lot to enjoy here for both science and sci-fi fans.

Thanks, NetGalley, for the ARC I received. This is my honest and voluntary review.
Was this review helpful?
A fun, thought-provoking, and incredibly well-researched book on what life on other planets might be like. Also appreciated the sci-fi book recs. Best I've read on the subject.
Was this review helpful?
Here’s the million dollar question: Is there life on other planets?

What is out there? What do they look like? Do they think? Eat? Sleep?

It’s such an interesting subject and one that I am absolutely fascinated about. But here’s a little spoiler for you: This book is interesting, but it’ll definitely not bring you concrete answers. On the contrary, it will make you even curiouser.

And that’s definitely not something bad! 

I loved what this author did. She gathered theories and studies, and added pop culture to it, to make it easier to visualize and understand. 

From Star Trek to Avatar, Jaime Green comparared the animals, environment, and people to speculative descriptions of other civilizations. 

The part that I loved the most was when the author mentioned that, in order to imagine alien life, a leap of faith is required. We’d need to be empathic, and understand that they might be completely different from us in the way of thinking and looking. And let’s be honest, it’s hard enough to do that on Earth with our own people and animals. Sad, but true.

I liked the book overall, and it really caught my attention. Some parts became a little dragging and I lost focus and attention, but I still highly recommend it if alien life is something that sparks your interest.
Was this review helpful?
ATTENTION all science, sci-fi, and/or fascinating non-fiction lovers! I have a book that I guarantee will be a totally new topic to deep dive into for you OR a totally new way to view a subject you may already love! Jaime not only seeks to compile research and add commentary to the question, “Is there life beyond Earth?”, she challenges us to reflect on what that question and our search for the answers reveals about us as humans- no matter the answer. 

The way Jaime organizes her book makes it easy for any reader to digest. She considers other forms of life through the lens of language, animals, technology, and more. She weaves together science and culture by locating the intersections of research, interviews, and data with pop culture and behavioral and social observation. If you are a sci-fi fan, you may find commentary on your favorite books and movies. You will also find material to add to your to-read and to-watch list, regardless! 

Sometimes it’s nice to break away from fiction and jump down a rabbit hole of information that stretches your thinking in ways you couldn’t have done alone. This book will do that for you, I promise! I not only walk away with fresh thoughts on whether or not we’re alone in the universe; I look at animals, movies, books, technology, and the direction of space exploration differently. (Also, Jaime is one of my favorite humans on the internet- please go follow her for bookish and life content.)

I’ll leave you with this quote: “…science fiction is more than entertainment, it’s a generative act that creates new possibilities of life beyond Earth, as valid and potent as anything we might conjure up in the lab. Through fiction we can move beyond likelihoods and binary outcomes to look instead at what our imaginations do with the limitless possibilities of outer space and, crucially, ask what that might mean.”

Thank you to NetGalley, Hanover Square Press, and the magnificent Jaime Green for an advanced copy of this book! Mark your calendars for its release on April 18th!
Was this review helpful?
In all honesty I think it was me and not the book. It took me forever to read this book. I did like the history bits of the book. 

I liked the part about life off of earth, but I found myself drifting off while reading. I would recommend  this book to people who live to feep dive into a book that is very detailed.
Was this review helpful?
A charming engagement of a subject that is both fascinating, varied, existential, and rife with chaos. Green manages to take an introspective and thoughtful approach to the topic while still making it interesting to a less knowledgeable or actively immersed reader. I look forward to seeing more from this author in the future. 

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the advanced digital copy.
Was this review helpful?
Solid 4 stars.

If you’re curious about life beyond our planet, or if you’re simply a sci-fi enthusiast, I recommend and think you’ll enjoy it. This book will help you approach you favorite books and shows differently. Even if you’re not crazy about aliens, I’d still recommend you give it a try. The book is as much about life on earth, why we look for aliens in the first place, and how amazing it is that life developed at all.

A very well researched read divided in different categories. For every category, say language, there’s a scientific view (how could aliens talk? would we be able to understand them?) and a fictional approach (different “alien” languages developed for books and tv, and how “alien” really are they?).

Of course it’s not possible to talk about life forms elsewhere without delving into what life is, and how life developed here on earth. And this part of the book sure makes one sit in awe of everything usually taken for granted.

It’s a nicely structured book that’s easy to follow. It’s packed with numerous references, and I love a book when, by the time you’re through with it, you’ve added ten more to your reading list.
Was this review helpful?
This was a compelling book that dove into the possibility of life outside of Earth. What I liked about this book was the fact that the author utilized well-known science fiction shows, books, and movies to explain certain concepts. As someone who isn't very familiar with some of the concepts outlined in the book, using common titles made the book easier to digest. I enjoyed the occasional diagram and picture to help solidify the author's remarks about certain theories and concepts being explained throughout the book. This book is perfect for those that want to learn more about the science behind science fiction.
Was this review helpful?
This is an intriguing book. The opening chapter inspired me to write an article at Splice Today, of which the beginning is reprinted here:
The Possibility of Life: Science, Imagination and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos, an upcoming book by science writer Jaime Green, opens with an intriguing scene from Star Trek: the Next Generation. In an episode titled “The Chase,” teams of humans, Klingons, Romulans and Cardassians are in a standoff on a planet where they’ve come separately to investigate apparent message fragments embedded in each species’ DNA. As the fragments click into place, a hologram of a bald woman appears and says she was of an ancient species that intervened in evolution on various planets to produce beings carrying some aspects of themselves.

This explains physical resemblances among species across multiple worlds (previously a mystery in the Star Trek universe); moreover, it gives reason for interplanetary rapprochement, about which the hologram expresses hope. The observers are unenthused, though, with a Klingon expressing anger at the long-dead message-sender, and a Cardassian finding the thought of a common heritage sickening. I’d no memory of the scene as I looked it up on YouTube, though my son says he and I have watched and discussed the episode. We live in an era of information overload, in which tracking fragments of alien-engineered DNA was one task too many.
Was this review helpful?
This was an interesting read into the exploration of the possibility of life outside of earth. While discussing this powerful question and the impacts that come along with it, the author uses well known science fiction books, tv shows, and movies to explore topics related to life on different planets. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in science, theoretical discussions about extraterrestrials, and fans of the science fiction genre.
Was this review helpful?