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It wasn’t that long ago that the field of astrobiology—the search for life beyond Earth—operated towards the fringes of scientific endeavor, research many explicitly avoided being identified with, especially those seeking government grants or academic tenure. That’s changed, though, as scientists have both discovered life in increasingly extreme environments on the Earth as well as identifying locales beyond Earth, including beyond our solar system, which may be hospitable to life. There are now astrobiology conferences, astrobiology journals, and even a NASA Astrobiology Institute. It’s in that environment of increased acceptance that Marc Kaufman surveys the state of astrobiology’s quest to discover life elsewhere in the universe in First Contact.

Kaufman, a reporter for the Washington Post, covers a lot of ground in First Contact, both intellectually and geographically. For the book he traveled from mines in South Africa where scientists look for extremophiles living deep below the surface, to observatories in Chile and Australia where astronomers search for methane on Mars and planets around other stars, to conferences from San Diego to Rome where researchers discuss their studies. He uses this travel to provide a first-person account of the state of astrobiology today, neatly condensed into about 200 pages. It’s a good overview for those not familiar with astrobiology, although those who have been following the field, or at least some aspects of it, will likely desire more details than what’s included in this slender book.

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Category: Science