Athena Coustenis and Thérèse Encrenaz
Cambridge University Press
2013 | 287pp | £19.99
Reviewed by Martin McCoustra
How was the chemical soup from which life evolved synthesised? What conditions are necessary to support life? Is there life elsewhere in our solar system or in our galaxy? These are the big philosophical questions for chemistry.
This small and very readable book – from two of the leading astrophysicists in Europe, actively engaged in extending our understanding of potentially habitable planetary environments – seeks to address these big questions, at least in part.
After a short introductory chapter reviewing the origins and characteristics of the solar system, the second chapter addresses the key questions of the definition of life and its chemical and biological evolution.
The chemistry content is limited but presented enthusiastically by the authors within the framework of the questions they seek to address. That enthusiasm continues throughout the text as the authors review the primordial evolution of the inner rocky planets so intimately linked to the process of radiative forcing (the greenhouse effect) before extending their view outwards and considering the potential for life in liquid water environments on the tidally warmed moons of the gas and ice giants. Finally, their gaze extends further still, to explain the detection and observation of exoplanets. These final chapters present a nice introduction to the astronomical techniques used to detect exoplanets including the nature of their observational bias. It also sets the scene for the goal of observing exoplanets, their atmospheres and the search for biosignatures.
It is hard to say exactly who would most appreciate this introductory text. In my view, this would be a good base for a short course on astrobiology as opposed to astrochemistry. The observational content is well written and clearly explained in a most readable fashion for the non-expert. This book could provide an excellent counter-balance to more chemically and biologically motivated texts with a similar theme.