Saturday, January 25, 2014

Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life by David Grinspoon


David Grinspoon is an adjunct professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Science at the University of Colorado. He is also the curator of Astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and has held several positions with NASA. In Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life the astrobiologist takes on the question of whether there is life, and ultimately the related question, is there intelligent life to be found in places other then Earth. 

Grinspoon covers a lot of territory here. This book contains a lot of hard science, but, as the author himself asserts, it is not a pure science book. Instead, it is a work of speculation, opinions, philosophy and general musings concerning the “Big Picture” as it relates to humankind, possible alien civilizations and the universe. 

Grinspoon does treat the reader to fascinating explanations covering the history of the Cosmos, from the Big Bang on through the formation of the galaxies, stars, planets, etc. He further delves into the history of life on Earth and the rise of human civilization.

Scientific discoveries relating to the subject are explained and analyzed. What we know about the solar system’s planets and major moons as well as the exoplanets are explained and analyzed.  Included is a look at the history of human speculation concerning extraterrestrial life from the time of the ancients through today. Grinspoon explores both philosophic as well as scientific based speculations concerning alien intelligence. Though the author disagrees with them, modern UFO, paranormal and New Age driven belief systems are also explored with a surprising amount of seriousness and respect.

A lot of educated speculation is devoted to the likelihood of alien life and alien intelligent life, the nature of such life, what alien civilizations might be doing out there, as well as how we might discover its existence. There are positively fascinating ruminations on speculative and far out subjects, such as machine-based intelligence, giant alien engineering projects involving the movement and creation of stars, alien messages contained in DNA and all sorts of other good stuff.

This is a very personal book. The author infuses the narrative with personal recollections, stories and feelings, as well as numerous references to what I would consider the more interesting aspects of popular culture. There are allusions to television shows like Star Trek and the X-Files, science fiction literature, jazz and rock music, etc. Humor and jokes are also sprinkled throughout the narrative. Sometimes Grinspoon’s comedy falls short and slips into the silly, diminishing this otherwise extraordinary work.

In pondering this book, it is inevitable that I mention two other scientist-thinkers whose shadows loom large in context to what I will label as modern science-related philosophy. The first is Richard Dawkins, who also writes this sort of non-fiction as he attempts to put it all together while ruminating about life, the universe and everything else. Fortunately, Grinspoon avoids the outright nastiness and disrespect for the ideas of others that have characterized Dawkins’s recent writings. At one point in this book, Grinspoon even takes Dawkins’s to task for his hostile nature.

Grinspoon outlook and attitude are extremely tolerant; in fact, his outlook is highly reminiscent of the views purported by late Carl Sagan. Sagan was a friend of Grinspoon’s parents and, later, of Grinspoon himself. 


Like Sagan, Grinspoon clearly believes in a rationalistic universe and in where empirical truths can best be discovered through scientific methods. Where Sagan and Grinspoon differ from Dawkins is that they not only respect others and the ideas of others, but they go out of their way to calmly examine ideas that they disagree with, without attempting to belittle them. Grinspoon actually goes further, he often explores how viewpoints contradictory to his, relating to science, religion, etc. might be correct and points out how and why he could be mistaken! He also turns a critical eye upon theories as well as belief systems that he himself agrees with.

For instance, in what I find to be an amazing moment of intellectual honesty for someone with Grinspoon’s worldview, 

It is certainly not immediately obvious that the beauty and complexity of life on Earth all came about through billions of years of random variation and selection. Our prescientific forebears can be forgiven for their intuitive inference that such a wonderful design requires a superhuman designer. Science has given us reason to doubt this need, but science has also revealed the design to be far more intricate, complex, and finely tuned than anyone imagined hundreds of years ago. Modern thinkers, too, are reasonable to doubt that natural selection could come up with all this. If you have never, ever, doubted it, then you’ve never really thought about it, only accepted the ideology and authority of your teachers.   

Grinspoon lays out his personal philosophy here. He connects the possible existence of alien intelligence to the basic meaning of human existence.  Grinspoon views this entire process that has occurred over billions of years as a process of “Cosmic Evolution”. The history of the universe from the Big Bang on to the modern technological civilizations, both ours and potential alien, is viewed by the author with a sense of awe and meaning. The author sees humankind’s best outcome in a combination of advanced technology and what he labels a new spiritualism; a kind of combination of universal compassion and love for others mixed with a deep understanding of the universe that embraces of our place in Cosmic Evolution. Our place in this process involves the universe becoming intelligent through humanity. All of this, according to the author, should lead to the global intelligence that is capable of avoiding an environmental cataclysm and other existentialist threats to humanity.  I am grossly oversimplifying the author’s beliefs. Grinspoon spends many pages developing these ideas. He also connects his worldview to other natural philosophers of the past, such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Iosif Shklovskii and, of course, Carl Sagan.

In regards to traditional and non-traditional religion, Grinspoon explains that he is not a believer in the actual nuts and bolts contentions of these systems. However, while occasionally critical, he is more often complimentary about various religious views and incorporates many ideas espoused by religion into his views. This incredibly open-minded thinker even delves into the possibility that he could be wrong and how it could possibly turn out that certain religious beliefs, as well as beliefs in UFOs, certain paranormal activity, etc. could be correct.

Grinspoon does not shirk the possibility that humanity, as well as alien civilizations at one time or another, may be on a cusp, between a bright future and utter destruction. He writes,

Science may be a candle in the dark but it is also a lit fuse, and our future depends on an ability to grasp a truth that comes from somewhere beyond science: that if we don’t do a much better job of loving one another here on this Earth, then we are going to miss the galactic party. 

The “candle in the dark” is clearly referring to Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, which extolled the enlightening aspects of science. I find that connecting this imagery to the imagery of a lit fuse is so very clever and poetic. Humanity will join the “galactic party” if and when we contact alien civilizations.

Grinspoon writes further,

We don’t know the odds, but this is the game we’re in. The problem of survival is not fundamentally technological. It is spiritual and moral. It is evolutionary. Technical solutions may provide temporary Band-Aids, but they do not save us from our nature. If we want to be one of the survivors, we must create a global society where curiosity is tightly bonded to compassion, and where (this is hardest to picture) not a lot of people want to do violence to others.   

Grinspoon’s reference to the survivors is that some presupposed alien civilizations inevitably destroy themselves while others inevitably survive.

One may think that this mix of science, history, philosophy and personal observations would be unwieldy. However, Grinspoon melds it into a seamless whole. 

Readers of this blog will know that I love reading about the ideas espoused by others that are contrary to my own beliefs. Though, of course, there are areas where I disagree with this author, Grinspoon’s worldview and attitude is, as was Sagan’s, more in line with my own then most. Add that to the fact that Grinspoon is so refreshingly tolerant towards diverging belief systems. All of this adds up to a highly recommended book. My conclusion is that Grinspoon is a very important thinker and a worthy intellectual heir to Carl Sagan.


I have also read Venus Revealed by Grinspoon. This is a fantastic encapsulation of what we know about the planet Venus. It is a pure science book, however Grinspoon also opens it up to many big scientific ideas.


Grinspoon’s fun and informative website is here.

27 comments:

Suko said...

Brian, Lonely Planets sounds like a fascinating mix of science, speculation, philosophy, musings and more. Interesting that the author was friends with Sagan. Thanks for bringing this book to our attention.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - The mix that you mention is accurate. i tend to really enjoy books like this in a very special way.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

This is not usually the kind of book I would choose to read but this passage made me reconsider:
"This is a very personal book. The author infuses the narrative with personal recollections, stories and feelings, as well as numerous references to what I would consider the more interesting aspects of popular culture."
Now it sounds a bit more appealing.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - Grinspoon's style of writing is indeed very "relaxed", especially for a book like this.

James said...

Brian,
Your commentary on Lonely Planets is impressive. Always fascinated by astronomy and the history of science, I appreciate the addition of his personal views and reference to other thinkers. This makes it sound like an even more attractive read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - thanks for the good word. For any bone interested in science, or just in humankind's place in the Universe, this is indeed an attractive read.

Caroline said...

This sounds fantastic. I would never pick up Dawkins because I don't like people who are as close-minded and condescending as he seems to be.
This book has many ingredients I find interesting. Thanks a lot for this great post.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - It is too bad about Dawkins because I find many of his scientific and philosophic views brilliant. Hopefully less abrasive folks like Witherspoon will come to the fore.

Tracy Terry said...

Ooh, we have a copy of this on our shelves though it has a different cover. A book I would never have thought to read but having read your thoughts on it I now feel more inclined to do so.

Heidi’sbooks said...

I love the variety of your books! This actually does sound interesting; it's not one I would ever pick up on my own without a recommendation. I like your meaty reviews as most reviews are shorter. My reviews are sometimes surface reviews because I've just started exploring certain authors or ideas. I someday hope to become more adept at analysis. Thanks for the inspiration.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - I would love to hear what you thought of this one if you choose to read it!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - Thanks!

One problem that I run into is time. I am slow writer and these in depth reviews tend to slow down my reading.


The ideas presented in this particular book are close to my heart so I spent some extra words on it.

Miguel (St. Orberose) said...

"This is a very personal book. The author infuses the narrative with personal recollections, stories and feelings, as well as numerous references to what I would consider the more interesting aspects of popular culture."

This sounds a lot like the style Steven Pinker uses; it's a good way of bringing science to laymen like me. Brian, you've got me interested in this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - I have only read Our Better Angels by Pinker. I find that Witherspoon is even more casual and tied into popular culture. Sometimes he even goes a little too far as I found his humor a bit too silly sometimes. Overall however the effect was mostly positive and entertaining.

seraillon said...

This does sound quite good (especially for those of us who used to be amateur astronomers!). While I can understand Dawkins' acerbic approach - he is, after all, battling against people who'd like to see us return to the Dark Ages - it's always such a pleasure to encounter a sharp intelligence also capable of taking a more calm, engaging, and non-confrontational approach.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Scott - Witherspoon's tone is indeed refreshing these days when so many seem so strident.

Rachel Bradford said...

Great review! This is definitely my type of book and I'm going to put it right on my TBR queue. Like you, I love to read philosophical discussions like these, regardless of whether they fit into my world-view. I'm especially interested in such discussions on science and religion, though I hesitate to read Dawkins because his style can be a bit rude. (In fact, I listened to an NPR talk by Dawkins once, and was shocked at how he flippantly disregarded a creationist's question even though he could easily have provided a suitable scientific answer. Some people need to step down off their ivory towers if they want to reach the public ears!)

Oh. Sorry about the rant. Point is, I'm going to look this book up. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - i think that you would really like this one and would love to think what you thought about it if you read it

. It is really too bad about Dawkins. At his best he can be so insightful, but his abrasiveness and disrespect for others is getting more and more in the way. If you read one of his books I would recommend The Selfish Gene. and thought provoking ideas. He really is mostly civil in the original It is full of original . Newer editions have updated notes and sections where he does exhibits some hostility.

Naida said...

This sounds interesting Brian. I've caught a few programs on the science channel about this topic and it's always thought provoking. It gets you wondering.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - It makes us wonder indeed. I think that it is one of the great mysteries of existence.

Guy Savage said...

I'd like to think that there are other worlds out there. I read this read line once about Science fiction--that it boils down to we got there or they come here. Anyway, I think about that line a lot. I'm fascinated by all the UFO sightings, alien kidnappings and space ship experiments allegedly conducted on people, but it's my impression that all those "things" aren't reported as much these days.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I think that the entire issue is one of the most fascinating question that we can ponder. Personally I think that it is highly unlikely that we are currently being visited. I also think that it is likely that there is other intelligence out there. Witherspoon does point out however, that until we learn more, these are educated guesses at best.

stujallen said...

seems like a boook that has been written with love but also a personnel feel that avoids it tripping over into the ufo nut section of the book shop ,all the best stu

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stu - I think that you hit something on the head, Grinspoon displays a love of the wonder that is inherent in reality.

Maria Behar said...

This review has completely blown me away! What a fascinating book!! I love all the aspects of it that you've pointed out so well.

As an ardent Star Trek fan, I think I owe it to myself to get this book and read it! I'm thrilled that Grinspoon brings in that great, timeless TV program, by the way! Indeed, from what you've written here, many of Grinspoon's thoughts are perfectly in line with those espoused by Starfleet and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

It sounds as if Grinspoon is not only a very open-minded thinker, but one who is always ready to change his current point of view, if given new evidence that proves the truth of the opposite viewpoint. Scientists above all must avoid a rigidly dogmatic way of thinking, since human knowledge, especially in the scientific field, is always expanding.

I found it fascinating as well that Carl Sagan was a friend of this author, and of the author's parents. All the more reason to read this book (as well as those authored by Sagan, which I must sheepishly confess I have not read....)

The topic of extraterrestrial life has long fascinated me! I've always thought, that, in a universe as immense as ours, it would be highly unlikely for us to be the ONLY intelligent, highly civilized (well, relatively speaking, lol...) living species. What a waste of planets that would be!!

Thanks for putting this book on my radar, fellow Earthling, and thanks for your great commentary on it!! Live long and prosper!! : )

Maria Behar said...

Just a note to let you know that I've just ordered this book on Amazon. I found it used (the listing said "like new") for only $.29, plus S/H. Good ol' Amazon!! I can't wait to get this book!! Thanks again for featuring it! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - I really think that you would like this one and I really would love to hear what you thought about it. The book is full of pondering that I think that you will find fascinating.

Grinspoon does indeed talk about how he is a Star Trek Fan in some detail. Without a doubt much of the ethos that Star Trek embodied directly relates to Grinspoon's viewpoints.

Live Long and Prosper!