Brownlee, Donald E(ugene) 1943-
BROWNLEE, Donald E(ugene) 1943-
PERSONAL: Born December 21, 1943, in Las Vegas, NV; son of Donald Eugene and Geraldine Florence (Stephen) Brownlee; married Paula Szkody. Education: University of California—Berkeley, B.S., 1965; University of Washington, Ph.D., 1970.
ADDRESSES: Offıce—Department of Astronomy, University of Washington, P.O. Box 35158, Seattle, WA 98195-0001. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Astronomer and educator. University of Washington, Seattle, associate professor of astronomy, 1970-77; California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, associate professor of geochemistry, 1977-82; University of Washington, Seattle, professor of astronomy, 1989—. Consultant to National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), 1976—; Enrico Fermi Institute, University of Chicago, distinguished visiting professor.
MEMBER: American Association for the Advancement of Science, International Astronomical Union, American Astronomical Association, Meteoritical Society.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Aeronautic and Space Administration grant, 1975; J. Lawrence Smith medal, National Academy of Sciences, 1994; Leonard Medal, Meteoritical Society.
(With Peter Douglas Ward) Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe, Copernicus (New York, NY), 2000.
(With Peter Douglas Ward) The Life and Death of Planet Earth: How the New Science of Astrobiology Charts the Ultimate Fate of Our World, Times Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor to scientific journals; Meteorites, associate editor; Microbeam Analysis Journal, member of editorial advisory board.
SIDELIGHTS: Donald E. Brownlee is a professor of astronomy who specializes in the study of extraterrestrial samples, comets, and the early solar system. He has served as the principal investigator of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration's Stardust mission, the purpose of which is to collect comet samples and return them to earth.
Brownlee collaborated with Peter Douglas Ward in the writing of Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe, in which the co-authors put forth the theory that while microbial life may exist throughout the universe, only Earth possesses the conditions necessary for the development of complex life. Their "Rare Earth Hypothesis" is "the paradox that life may be nearly everywhere but complex life almost nowhere." They also predict the future of Earth, taking into account the effects of another ice age, global warming, and other trends that they feel will ultimately return Earth to a barren state. An Economist reviewer felt that "this carefully reasoned book makes a strong case for undoing at least some of the work of Copernicus, by accepting that the earth is special after all. It also makes the cosmos seem an even more vast and lonely place."
Brownlee and Ward write of the factors that have enabled life to flourish on Earth, including the fact that we are the right distance from our sun, enjoy a stable environment, and are not threatened by astronomical phenomena that could pour radiation down on our planet. They note that we have recently realized the effect Jupiter has in protecting Earth, pulling space debris into its atmosphere, so that it never reaches the smaller planet. The geology of Earth is also a factor: a collection of microenvironments, from lakes to deserts, in which a variety of animal life are able to survive. They list ten historical incidents for potential extinction that have threatened our planet and note that some forms of life managed to survive each, adding that there are no guarantees such luck will hold.
Skeptical Inquirer contributor Mark Wolverton wrote that "frankly, for those of us who have dreamed of great interstellar civilizations and encounters with other intelligences, it's all pretty depressing. But Rare Earth isn't trying to maliciously spoil our party. It's just trying to bring our expectations in line with what increasingly seems to be the way things are. Brownlee and Ward argue that simple life may be even more common in the universe than is currently believed. But a galaxy brimming with intelligent life is very unlikely. They may be out there, somewhere; if not in this galaxy, perhaps others."
Lawrence Krauss reviewed Rare Earth for Physics Today Online, writing that the authors "summarize clearly the developments over the past few decades that reveal the complexity of the evolution of advanced life forms on earth. However, demonstrating the complexity of a process is different from demonstrating that the end result is rare. If anything, Ward and Brownlee show clearly how much remains to be learned in the area NASA has named astrobiology—a combination of geology, paleontology, astronomy, and biology that pertains to understanding the evolution of life and its signatures." Krauss went on to note that the book "provides a great collection of diverse information brought together in one place and is very up-to-date." American Science reviewer Tim Tokaryk called Rare Earth "a stellar example of clear writing on a complex issue. For to ask 'What is life?' or about the astronomical and geological forces that helped or hindered life's origin requires patience with the intended audience."
In The Life and Death of Planet Earth: How the New Science of Astrobiology Charts the Ultimate Fate of Our World Brownlee and Ward restate their thesis from Rare Earth and continue to predict a future for Earth that ends in its destruction. The authors note that we are experiencing a brief interlude (11,000 years) between ice ages. Eventually, glaciers will again cover much of the planet, driving humans to the equator and spurring efforts to colonize in space. They predict that in a quarter of a billion years, the continents will come together to form a single desert-like continent and that the greenhouse effect will destroy, first, green plants, then most animal life. Several billion years later, earth would be incinerated by an expanding sun. A Kirkus Reviews critic called the book "far from cheerful, but fascinating," and Booklist contributor Gilbert Taylor wrote: "creative but scientifically grounded, the authors' prognostication of the ultimate environmental disaster is morbidly enthralling."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Scientist, March, 2000, Tim Tokaryk, review of Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe, p. 168.
Astronomy, August, 2000, Robert Naeye, review of Rare Earth, p. 105.
Booklist, December 15, 2002, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Life and Death of Planet Earth: How the New Science of Astrobiology Charts the Ultimate Fate of Our World, p. 715.
Economist, May 13, 2000, review of Rare Earth, p. 5.
Futurist, November-December, 2003, review of The Life and Death of Planet Earth, p. 61.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2002, review of The Life and Death of Planet Earth, p. 1683.
Library Journal, November 15, 1999, Gloria Maxwell, review of Rare Earth, p. 96.
Nature, April 17, 2003, Norman H. Sleep, review of The Life and Death of Planet Earth, p. 663.
New Scientist, February 15, 2003, David Hughes, review of The Life and Death of Planet Earth, p. 50.
Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, winter, 2001, James F. Kasting, review of Rare Earth, p. 117.
Publishers Weekly, November 18, 2002, review of The Life and Death of Planet Earth, p. 53.
R & D, August, 2000, review of Rare Earth, p. 11.
Science, April 28, 2000, Christopher P. McKay, review of Rare Earth, p. 625; February 15, 2003, review of The Life and Death of Planet Earth, p. 111.
Skeptical Inquirer, November, 2000, Mark Wolverton, review of Rare Earth, p. 51.
Donald Brownlee Home Page,http://www.astro.washington.edu/brownlee (March 19, 2004).
Physics Today Online,http://www.aip.org/ (April 28, 2003), Lawrence Krauss, review of Rare Earth.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Online,http://www.post-gazette.com/ (January 19, 2003), Fred Bortz, review of The Life and Death of Planet Earth.*