Science Book a Day Interviews Lee Billings

leeBillingsSpecial thanks to Lee Billings for answering 6 questions about his recently featured book – 5 Billions Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars

Lee Billings writes about the intersections of science, technology, and culture for NatureNautilusNew ScientistPopular MechanicsScientific American, and many other publications. – From Lee’s Homepage

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#1 – The science of searching for exoplanets has exploded over the last two decades. What have the reasons been for this explosion?

Beyond the fundamental motivation of human curiosity, the exoplanet boom is a product of two things: improved instrumentation/methods, and nature’s preference for constructing planetary systems in a wide diversity of architectures. Basically, it seems like most planetary systems don’t look like our own, with its small inner worlds and large outer gas giants. We’ve found lots of systems with very different architectures, where large planets are orbiting quite close to their stars, and these sorts of systems are generally easier to detect. They’re particularly easier to detect when you’re using things like digital detectors, ultra-stable spectrographs and photometers, and high-speed computers for data analysis — these sorts of technical advances were key for the eventual exoplanet boom that began in the 1990s. What’s exciting is that there are lots more of these sorts of technical advances currently under development, meaning that for decades to come the exoplanet boom will probably continue unabated. We’ve really begun taking the galactic planetary census, figuring out what sorts of planetary systems exist around nearly all the Sun’s neighboring stars.

#2 – Why did you choose to feature the scientists you have featured? What makes them special in the field?

They’re all at the top of their game. Of all the people on the planet who do what they do, they are among the very best. They’re all also very passionate about their work, and quite thoughtful about its bigger implications. I do think they are all special, but for each person I feature I can think of five more who would’ve also been a good alternative. I was frankly spoiled for choice, because there are simply so many smart, driven people working in exoplanets right now. It’s really astronomy’s hottest, most alluring subject at the moment, and that status tends to attract brilliant minds from all over.

#3 – What is the ultimate end game in our work in searching for exoplanets? What are its ultimate aims? And how will we know when we get there?

That depends on who you ask. Some people just want to find the mirror Earths, the little pale blue dots that seem to offer the best chances of harboring life as we know it. They want to find out whether or not we’re alone, I think. Others aren’t really that interested in questions of Earth and of life and our possible cosmic solitude, and just want to gain a more comprehensive understanding of how planets and planetary systems form and evolve. And of course there are the really aspirational folks who are basically trying to map out the territory for some sort of Star Trek-style future in which our descendants somehow go out and actually visit and perhaps even colonize the most promising exoplanets. I’m sympathetic to all of those motivations and aims, but, being a romantic at heart, the far-future possibility of escaping the death of our Sun for new extrasolar homes resonates with me. That existential, almost spiritual yearning for something like interstellar immortality is a seductive and powerful thing, and I think it can help forge a brighter long-term future for our species.

#4 – I believe astrophysicists love their acronyms – JEDI, TATTOINE, WIMP. What is your favourite? 🙂

Ooh, good question. It’s hard to play favorites here, there are so many good ones. I will say that in my experience the non-planet astro types have the raunchier and more convoluted acronyms. Not sure why that might be, but there you go. The acronyms I tend to like are ones that have some thread of a story behind them, or ones that make a particularly apt in-joke reference.

I briefly mention an instrument in the book called POLISH (POLarimeter for Inclination Studies of Hot jupiters) built by an astronomer of Polish descent, Sloane Wiktorowicz. That one was kinda funny. Totally by coincidence, there’s also a true-blue Polish project with a great acronym: OGLE (Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment), which is mostly about looking for dark matter via something called microlensing though it also has managed to bag a respectable number of planets through the same technique. I sometimes think of astronomers ogling the sexy celestial objects they find, so that one stands out. Another good one is BEER (BEaming, Ellipsoidal, and Reflection effects), which is a cool exoplanet detection/characterization technique developed by Tsevi Mazeh and Simchon Faigler at Tel Aviv University. One thing I know from hanging out with planet-hunters is that most of them love their beer. I’m also partial to TAU (Thousand Astronomical Units), a proposed high-speed unmanned probe to interstellar space that, I believe, references Poul Anderson’s excellent hard science fiction novel, Tau Zero.

One more thing to mention… I love some of the names that the Swiss and French planet-hunters came up with for some of their older spectrographs: ELODIE, SOPHIE, CORALIE. I don’t actually know if they’re formally acronyms… I think I read somewhere once that they are actually named after daughters or wives of some of the instrument-makers. Anyway, I like those names a lot, the ones that imbue this piece of metal and glass and plastic with some semblance of life and personality.

#5 – Do you have any more books/projects you can tell us about?

Nothing I’m really comfortable talking about yet, no. Things are still hazy and nebulous. Suffice to say I’m brainstorming lots of ideas for my next big thing!

#6 – Why the title? A play on words? Or does the undertone with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book come through in the book?

With all due respect to Márquez and his work, which I love, as well as to several mistaken reviewers, the book’s title has nothing to do with One Hundred Years of Solitude and was neither consciously inspired by nor paying homage to it. I’m sure there are interesting resonances between the two works that could be plumbed… Márquez’s book can be read as a multi-generational tale about history tragically repeating itself, and the book’s setting of Macondo is a city of mirrors that reflects the world around it. My book can be read as about a multi-generational quest that risks being undone by the timeless human failings repeating themselves again and again. One of this quest’s goals is to build a very large specialized planet-finding space telescope, a great orbital mirror that through astronomical levels of investment in time and money could reflect our culture’s prioritization of space exploration and long-term planning. But, I mean, I’m reaching here.

The title simple comes from the approximate age of the Earth (4.5 billion years) and the approximate lower limit on how much time Earth’s complex biosphere has left to it (500 million years). I explain the science behind those numbers in much more detail in the book. Put those numbers together, and you get five billion years, a nice round number suitable for a book title. The “solitude” bit comes in from the notion that there is no guaranteed success for this quest for extrasolar life. There may be no one out there to find, let alone to talk to. They may be out there, but we may never make the necessary investments to go out and find them. Through our technology, we may someday sustainably spread Earth’s spark of life and intelligence beyond the solar system, but there’s probably a limited window of opportunity for that to happen, and it may be closing even now. One reason I wrote the book was to present this scary possibility, that through lack of caring and stewardship and investment, we essentially close the door on a sustainable long-term future.

For what it’s worth, after I settled on the title, I did a Google search of the phrase, and found that it has actually been used before. Kim Stanley Robinson, an author I greatly admire, used “five billion years of solitude” in his excellent book, Blue Mars, so I’d like to say that’s where I drew inspiration from, ex post facto.

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