Bringing the Sacred Home (11/11) mentioned Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life, by David Grinspoon -- a book that's always on my short list of good reads about the prospect of life beyond Earth.
The rest of the short list -- five in all -- inlcudes two histories of the extraterrestrial life debate, a volume on theological perspectives, and a posthumous gift of inspiring writing from Carl Sagan. I consider these must-reads for anyone interested in acquiring a clear and well-grounded understanding of the subject. (Actually, there are no "musts" on this route, so let's call them read-if-you're-inspired selections.)
The histories were written by Michael J. Crowe and Steven J. Dick, two historians of science I hope to meet one day. Crowe is the Rev. John J. Cavanaugh Professor Emertus in Humanities in the Program of Liberal Studies and the Graduate Program in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Notre Dame. An author of several distinguished volumes, his book The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900 traces the story as it unfolded in the West in meticulous detail. This is a work of formidable and impressive scholarship on every level: Crowe also covers the participants who wrote in langauages other than English. Not eveyone will appreciate the fact that there are some 80 pages of endnotes and an extensive bibliography, but I do. I consult this resource often, and never stop admiring the author's complete grasp of his subject.
Steven J. Dick, an astonomer and historian, is Chief Historian at NASA. His Life on Other Worlds: The 20th Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate (first soft cover ed. 2001), brings readers current on the evolving nature of the discussion in an equally engaging but different narrative style than Crowe's. Because it covers more recent thinking, the book includes chapters on the UFO phenomenon and SETI. FYI, Life on Other Worlds is an abridged and updated version of Dick's The Biological Universe: The Twentieth Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science (1996).
Dick also edited Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life, and the Theological Implications, mentioned in my 11/11 post. I have this on the list because it's the only volume I know that addresses theology from a diverse collection of individuals: physicists, astrophysicists, biochemists, planetary scientists, philosophers, historians of science, and theologians trained in science. That said, the title is a bit misleading: more scientitists than theologians contribute, and the subject, as large as it is, certainly deserves additional coverage from world religions and other spiritual traditions.
Rounding things out is Carl Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, edited by Ann Druyan. Published in 2006, this volume presents a series lectures Sagan gave in 1985 commemorating the centennial of the Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. In his talks Sagan outlined his personal views on what used be called natural theology, or as he described it, "everything about the world not supplied by revelation." In doing so, he spoke across a broad range of topics relevant to science and religion, including extraterrestrial intelligence, the implications of extraterrestrial folklore for the evolution of religions, and the God hypothesis. Sagan's approach to the lectures -- each one self-contained, revealing, and enjoyable from beginning to end -- is artfully described in Druyan's introduction. I have the Penguin Books soft cover edition. Speaking as a former publisher, it's hands-down beautifully designed and illustrated.
There are, of course, dozens of other books well worth reading on the subject of life beyond Earth, including others by the authors referenced here. (Just last month, Crowe's The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, Antiquity to 1915: A Source Book, was published by the University of Notre Dame Press.)The more I've researched, the more surprises I've discovered. Future posts will call selected ones to your attention.
Meanwhile, if you've come across a volume that you'd like to share, I'd enjoy hearing from you!
Next stop: Saturn's Venting Moon
Banner bus photo created by Dorothy Delina Porter