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Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars

3.88  ·  Rating details ·  886 ratings  ·  156 reviews
An intimate history of Earth and the quest for life beyond the solar system

For 4.6 billion years our living planet has been alone in a vast and silent universe. But soon, Earth's isolation could come to an end. Over the past two decades, astronomers have discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars. Some of these exoplanets may be mirror images of our own world. An
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published October 3rd 2013 by Current
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Oct 17, 2013 rated it liked it
In the final chapter of Lee Billings' Five Billion Years of Solitude, after more than 200 pages of dense exoplanetary prose and interviews with respected astronomists, we're introduced to Sara Seager, a middle-aged scientist at MIT who is one of the world's foremost experts on exoplanets--that is, earth-like worlds existing beyond the scope of our current scientific reach. Unlike the book's other chapters, however, Seager is introduced to us not through the complexity of her research, the revela ...more
Clif Hostetler
Dec 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
This book reads much as if it was based on notes taken during an all night bull session with leading scientists. It's sort of a travelogue by a journalist reporting on his itinerant interviews with the leading minds in astrophysics and the earth sciences.  Along the way we learn about science and also a bit about the personalities of those doing the science.

Beyond their personal stories and concerns about reduced funding for scientific research, the reader is exposed to “a portrait of our plane
Oct 16, 2013 marked it as to-read
Shelves: astronomy, exoplanets

Ultracool Dwarf and the Seven Planets
Temperate Earth-sized Worlds Found in Extraordinarily Rich Planetary System
22 February 2017*

Apr 20, 14, today, I've read this on CNN:"A galaxy full of Earths?" By Jim Bell. It's one more alike-planet;according to the article," Thomas Barclay, a scientist at the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute at Ames and a co-author of a paper on the planet, called Kepler-186f"..."an "Earth-cousin rather than an Earth-twin".

"The planet was discovered
John Jr.
Science writer Lee Billings accomplishes a lot in the pages of Five Billion Years of Solitude (published in the U.S. in October 2013 by Current). He describes the entire history of Earth, including the rise and spread of life; the history of thinking about Earth’s place in the universe; and the history of efforts to locate other planets and other intelligences. He also considers the future of life on this planet and of the exoplanet search. The book would be valuable if it did no more, but the b ...more
Daniel Villines
Dec 08, 2013 rated it really liked it
Lee Billings captures the current state of affairs associated with the search for exoplanets and life beyond our solar system. He creates a detailed picture that includes the history of this search up through its present-day composition, and the final composition resembles a hopeless mess.

Past and present, the effort to find life among the stars rolls around on a tabletop landing at various times between the inter-competition of scientists, the bickering of politicians, and a public that loves s
Jan 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
I liked this book quite a bit, but I am a sucker for planet formation and the search for other habitable planets. I would say however that I would like this book to have talked in depth about brown dwarfs and some of the newer ideas about how matter accretes to form planets. If you too want to read about the magic of brown dwarfs (a cross between a planet and a star!), I suggest Strange New Worlds by Ray Jayawardhana.

This book had a really nice mix of biology (Earth formation) and physics (gene
May 16, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: books-i-own
As a kid I was obsessed with space. And I still love to sit and think about what's out there beyond and within our visible universe. This book was not a typical read for me but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I would certainly recommend it for anyone that is interested in the historical timeline of our search for life outside our earthly realm, especially if that person loves science and math and physics etc. All said and done it was a bit of a grind at times, and I found sometimes I got a bit off cou ...more
Jan 27, 2014 rated it it was amazing
There is a quote somewhere in this book about simultaneously feeling very large and very, very small. That captures the experience of reading this book. It is incredible how far the human race has reached into the cosmos, but also, how that progress is at risk because of our own failings. Mandatory reading for anyone with a curiosity in how we fit into the universe, and a desire to know what comes next.
Dec 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
I highly recommend this book to anyone even remotely interested in the search for alien life and space exploration.

From SETI to enormous telescopes with sunshades, Billings describes the various ways scientists are endeavoring to discover life on other planets. He's thorough and makes complicated information easy to consume for mainstream readers.

What struck me as I made my way through the pages, however, wasn't the wealth of knowledge Billings acquired and effectively communicates, but the con
Sam Bauman
Jan 27, 2015 rated it liked it
I took astronomy twice in college so I know quite a bit about space but Lee still taught me lots about it in this book. He writes in a nice enjoyable style and as long as you enjoy the topic, it's a book worth reading. I wish he had talked more about Scorpios though.

P.S. This review is biased since I drank a bunch of beer at Lee's house in the early 2000s. The opinion expressed above should be assumed to be wrong. Always.
Oct 22, 2014 rated it liked it
I enjoyed this book and learned a lot about exoplanets, as well as environmental impacts and the politics of NASA. There were several chapters that just felt too long and I would find myself skimming to get to new information. I'd still recommend it though. ...more
Julian Douglass
Dec 15, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting book that makes you think about the heavens, what is truly out there, and the whole concept of life on this planet and if there truly is life somewhere else in the universe. A little heavy on the science lingo, which could be done on purpose because the target audience is not the casual science fan. I would recommend this for any high schooler who is interested in science, especially astrophysics.

Dec 19, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Well, aren't we living in a slow apocalypse. At least that's the vibe I get from reading this book. A non-fiction book about, well, just what the title talks about, The Search for Life Among the Stars.

I tend to have gallows sort of humor about life. I remember reading, many years ago, a book called, the Waning of the Middle Ages and was stunned about how, for the most part, people had the most pessimistic view about life. Turns out I would have fit right in back then. The only difference is tha
D.L. Morrese
Apr 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: great-nonfiction
Subtitled 'The Search for Life Among the Stars', the author first looks at the one planet we know most about, Earth; how it began, how life came about, what it was like before humans came into the picture and what it will be like after we're gone. It's a good overview. The one inescapable take away from this book is an appreciation for how rare Earth is. So far, it is the only planet we know of on which life exists...and for most of our planet's existence, life could not exist even here. Billion ...more
Jan 10, 2015 rated it it was ok
1.5 Stars. I was really excited about this book. I took the bare minimum of science in college, but one of those courses was Astronomy 110: Planets and Stars. I love this stuff. And I loved the parts of this book that actually talked about planets -- and exoplanets! -- and stars. But during the last chapter, I literally thought Audible had accidentally spliced a romance novel into the file. I'm pretty sure Billings had intimate relations with astronomer Sara Seager - I'm almost positive that was ...more
May 19, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Five Billion Years of Solitude, written by Lee Billings, is an excellent primer on the issues of life, death and survival facing the human race. The primary subject is the search for exoplanets, but Billings covers much more than that. He describes in understandable terms the geological history of the Earth (in the process debunking the pseudo-science of Creationism), the search for extraterrestrial life and habitable planets, and issues of more current interest, such as what the real stakes are ...more
Aug 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Absolutely wonderful.
This is one of my all-time favorites, and if it weren't for the Giveaway on Goodreads I would never have known about it. Billings went to such lengths to find information, traveling all over, staying with family or friends and pushing through. I was not sure what to expect from this book, the brief description on the back cover is a bit deceiving? Or off-key to me...

The chapters cover so many different topics: Global warming & its relation to the formation of our planet, as
Doug Cornelius
Mar 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Will we ever discover intelligent life beyond our planet? Is there is intelligent life beyond ours? Are there habitable planets other than Earth? Will humans be around long enough to to find out? Or be discovered by other civilizations?

This book offers both hopeful and melancholy answers to these questions. The truth is that we don't know. There are a multitude of factors to consider. This book discusses many of them in a thoughtful and wonderful way.
Christian Schoon
Dec 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
Well crafted overview of the (sadly underfunded) state of exoplanet research as currently conducted by the US and other nations. Has a few vaguely annoying digressions into private lives that seem less than illuminating and unnecessary, but otherwise worth your time if you're fascinated by the hunt for earth-like worlds. ...more
Oct 30, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I had to take it back to the library before I could finish it, but I'll give it five stars for the observation that the sun could be used as a lens alone. ...more
Eric Roston
Terrifically articulate, in-depth, and personable. This is a key book for anyone interested in the greatest, most eye-opening success in astronomy in a generation.
Oct 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
If you're looking for a review that tells you if the book is factually correct or not, skip this one. I honestly know next to nothing about astronomy, so I do not have the slightest clue. It was interesting though. I bought it during a phase when I wanted to be smarter and read more non-fiction, even though I'm a dreamer at heart. As such, this book is a bit denser than I'm used to. I don't feel as if I absorbed much. I find that I learn better from videos and audiobooks than actual books when i ...more
Esteban LV
Jul 21, 2018 rated it it was ok
That's it?

Is what you think when finishing this book, unfortunately.

All of it is decent enough, entertaining to a point, and can be very engaging—as the buildup and conclusion of the couple's tragedy. On top of that, this is a great way to find out about all the related space programs, which I didn't expect (I don't commonly read book reviews or excerpts) and is worth every page.

But... I lacks an opinion! It's just a narration, a description, but it offers no insight, no authentic though is hear
Ed Bernard
Jun 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
An informative and well-told review of the various ways astronomers and astrobiologists are trying to understand and ultimately discover life elsewhere in the universe. Billings focuses in detail on the latest science in planet hunting (though the book is pretty out of date at this point, as it was written in 2013 and a lot has happened since then), which is amazing in both human ingenuity and technology. As with most deep scientific reviews, he gets into the personalities of the many remarkable ...more
Francis Bezooyen
Jun 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Lee Billings does a good job of weaving together personal elements from the lives of those scientists who have been at the forefront of the search for exoplanets, with fascinating details about a wide range of subjects, including how the earth was formed and changed through different periods of its existence, including what will become of it in the future and how we might survive our changing fortunes, to the various conditions that could affect the habitability of the planets we might find, to ...more
Aug 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The possibility of life far out weighs, in several orders of magnitude, the possibility there is no life elsewhere in the universe. There are billions of galaxies, trillions of planets, moons, etc. To understand the possibilities, you have to understand the creation of the universe.

"Our solar system is almost 5 billion years old (4.6, really) and we haven't yet had any indication that there are other forms of life in the cosmos, especially intelligent ones."

I hold fast to the opinion that the u
Douglas Summers-Stay
Jun 22, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
We checked this out as a kind of joke-- while driving my son and I had been idly "improving" novels by changing numbers in their titles to really huge numbers (to make them into epic science fiction) and had independently invented the title of this book. It turns out to mostly be the personal stories of the scientists involved in SETI, which is all right, but less interesting than a book about exoplanets. What science there was in the book wasn't new to me. The number of exoplanets known when th ...more
Kyle Sullivan
Jul 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Lee Billings does a good job of profiling the emerging chaos of the rush to discover the first exoplanets. He also does a great job musing on the galactic ramifications of these unprecedented discoveries and fervour. I recommend this book. You'll be introduced to some previously unknown history and you will get a great overview of the state of the field. In the meantime, I'll leave you with this quote:

"A man becomes a protein-sheathed splash of ocean raised from rock to breathe the sky, an eate
Jun 14, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A mind opening book about our place in the universe. It isn't that long that humanity begun making a concerted effort to find other inhabitable planets. Both as homes for other life forms but also as a potential future home for earthlings. This book makes very clear how enormous time and space are and what a puny part of it we are, and yet as far as we can objectively attest the only place with living organisms.

A great read for anyone interested on gaining some perspective as to their importance
Junia Hagenauer
Jun 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
Lee Billings is a beautiful writer and reading "Five Billion Years Of Solitude" feels like sitting outside on a warm summer night and being told about all the impossibly distant life out there. It's not a very scientific book but it gives a suprisingly good and easy-to-understand introduction to the search for extraterrestrial life. I read this on the daily trainrides to the place I worked at as a short-term intern (5/5 as a trainride book!!!) ...more
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Lee Billings writes about the intersections of science, technology, and culture for Nature, Nautilus, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, and many other publications.

His first book, Five Billion Years of Solitude, chronicles the scientific quest to discover other Earth-like planets elsewhere in the universe.

Billings lives in New York City with his wife, Melissa.

Articles featuring this book

Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and co-founder of NPR’s 13.7: Cosmos and Culture blog and an on-air...
68 likes · 10 comments
“I have lost tolerance for things without meaning. There is no time for them. Does that make sense? - Sara Seager” 2 likes
“People don’t support what they think is best for all of science, they support what directly benefits them.” 0 likes
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