Paris - Feb 1, 2002
Walk outside on any clear night and it's impossible not to notice the many thousands of stars visible overhead. Although most of us don't sit around pondering the ultimate fate of the universe, our galaxy, or even our solar system as many as half of all sun-like stars may harbor planetary systems.
In "Distant Wanderers," I try to help the reader more fully appreciate just how our little Earth fits into the grand backdrop of stars that populate the nighttime sky. Any one of these points of light could be circled by planets, be they planets that have yet to fully form, gaseous Jupiter-like giants that are wholly unsuitable for life, or even planets much like our own.
I begin with the first decade-old discovery of extrasolar planets outside our solar system, terrestrial mass planets orbiting a dying neutron star, proceed to explain some of the latest theories of how planets form, and then discuss the most successful methods of detecting planets around sunlike stars.
A significant part of the book is devoted to more unconventional planet-detection methods that have yet to be fully actualized, as well as the current debate over how the definitions of what constitutes planets and stars have grown ever so fuzzy.
Then I shift gears to talk about upcoming space missions to detect and also characterize earthlike extrasolar planets in our own stellar neighborhood. Future missions may allow us to remotely detect earthlike planets that could harbor life, even if only vegetation.
Finally, I discuss the prospects and methods of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and the ultimate fate of our species and our solar system.
Beyond that, I aim to keep the book light-hearted, even irreverent, so that at the end of the day the reader also realizes that astronomers and astrophysicists are not "high-tech priests" but merely fallible humans on a noble quest to satisfy man's innate curiosity about his place in the cosmos.
To that end, I give the reader an inside look at the night-to-night activity at many of the world's best observatories.
If my book does nothing else, I hope it will help people more fully recognize that the same tiny points of light that give us comfort on cloudless nights also harbor full-fledged planetary systems.
Even more fundamentally, the reader will come to be more fully aware that we too are only byproducts of astrophysical processes that took place eons ago. And the very processes that led to the formation of our own solar system and will ultimately lead to its demise are being continually mirrored across the galaxy.
We spend a great deal of time studying earth, its geography, geology, its past, and its future. Shouldn't we spend the same amount of energy trying to determine how our planet and planetary system fit into the rest of the galaxy?
Of course, we are a unique part of the cosmos, but whether we are the only "living" part of this grand scheme has yet to be determined. Over the next three decades, astronomy will give us the tools to answer this essential question.
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