Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on May 6, 1998. All rights reserved.
Michael Lemonick’s Search for `Other Worlds’
What’s an author to do? Michael D. Lemonick’s newest
book, "Other Worlds: The Search for Life in the Universe"
is to be published officially on May 14, and advance copies of it
are already available. He is scheduled for a book singing Friday,
May 8, at 5:30 p.m. at Micawber Books in Princeton. Since mid-April,
too late to be included in the book, hot news about the cosmos has
been breaking. Two groups of scientists, working independently in
Chile and Hawaii, have reported evidence of the formation of a planetary
system around a star 220 light years from Earth. A third team of astronomers
in Hawaii has obtained evidence of planetary formation around two
of the brightest known stars. "If planets like those around earth
exist elsewhere that is a strong piece of evidence for life existing,"
says Lemonick, in a telephone interview from his home in Princeton.
All of these observations would have been in the book if they had
happened a little earlier, he says.
"The question of whether life exists on other planets is something
I’ve wondered about since I was a kid," says Lemonick. "If
you look at stars and planets, you can’t help wondering. When I was
a kid, these questions were just speculations. There was no actual
evidence. About three years ago evidence appeared. This question,
which was a speculation for thousands of years, is on the verge of
being answered. That’s why I wrote the book."
During the three years since scientists have learned that stars other
than the sun have planets, they have pursued investigations from various
angles. "The teams I wrote about were looking for individual planets,"
says Lemonick. "These people," he says, referring to the teams
whose discoveries were announced in April, "were looking for dust.
Dust is present not only in new planetary systems. It is also present
in mature planetary systems. By looking at dust in planetary systems,
it gives information about the system at different stages. At any
given time, dust tells what’s going on with planets."
Lemonick describes himself as a journalist, rather than a scientist.
His special interest is in popularizing science. "The philosophy
of all science is the same, from microbiology to archaeology. I try
to explain to the non-specialist what happened and why it’s important,
and to do so in an understandable way."
In "Other Worlds" one never loses track of the
fact that real people, with full lives, are making the scientific
discoveries. "Telling the story through people is one way I like
to do it," says Lemonick, "because then readers can relate
to the story. They can relate to the excitement of finding something,
or to how hard the work has been, or to the fulfilling of a dream.
For these astronomers, their discoveries were the fulfillment of a
Another technique Lemonick favors is the use of analogies. "If
I say that asteroids bounce off each other like billiard balls, that
gives vividness," he says.
Lemonick, 44, grew up in Princeton, where his father, Aaron Lemonick,
was a member of the university’s physics department until his recent
retirement. "My father had a major influence on my interest in
science, especially astronomy. When I was seven or eight he told me
the story of Halley’s comet and that Mark Twain’s birth (in 1835)
and death (in 1910) were in years when Halley’s comet was visible.
That got me really excited. When Halley’s comet came in 1986, it was
a big disappointment. But I’ve since forgiven my father."
Lemonick says his father introduced him to science. "Most kids
learn about science through science classes or textbooks. Too often,
it’s a dry introduction. My father told me and my brother stories
about science late at night riding in the car." Lemonick’s brother,
who is one year his junior, is now a physician. The car rides took
place while the family was returning to Princeton after their frequent
visits to relatives in Philadelphia. "I have a very vivid memory
going around a particular curve on Route 1," Lemonick says, "where
my father told me about atoms. It was before Route 95 was built."
On family vacation trips to New Hampshire or Vermont, the conversation
would frequently turn to science.
Lemonick began to read science fiction when he was a
boy. "As a kid I was interested in science," he says. "I
wanted to know the answers: Is there life on other planets? How did
the universe begin? What are quasars? What are black holes? Science
books often said, `We don’t know.’ Science fiction gave answers, even
if they weren’t true."
Lemonick’s strong second interest has been music. He played trumpet
while he was at Princeton High School. He now plays a variety of wind
instruments and the violin. At the moment he is most active on the
violin, which he calls the "fiddle," playing for contra dance
groups, and sometimes playing the bodhran, a single-headed Irish drum
popular in folk music.
Lemonick is a graduate of Harvard College and the Graduate School
of Journalism of Columbia University. "I began writing by default,"
he told Amazon.com in an interview published on the Web. "I was
several years out of college, and hadn’t found any sort of work I
enjoyed. What I liked doing most of all was reading about science,
at a popular level, in newspapers, Scientific American, and other
science magazines. Finally, it occurred to me that somebody must actually
be paid to write the things I loved reading, and I figured that this
was the career for me, so I went back to school. That led me, eventually,
to a writing job at Time magazine, and finally to books." He writes
books on topics that "grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go
— and a magazine format wouldn’t let me explore them in adequate
Lemonick has twice won the American Association for the Advancement
of Science’s Westinghouse Award for Distinguished Magazine Writing.
His book, "The Light at the Edge of the Universe: Leading Cosmologists
on the Brink of a Scientific Revolution," was published in 1993.
It deals with the creation of the universe, and favors a big bang
explanation coupled with the belief that the universe will expand
infinitely. The photographs for the book were made by his wife, Eileen
Hohmuth-Lemonick, who teaches photography at Princeton Country Day
School. "It was not really a collaboration," says Lemonick,
"because we were not at the same place at the same time."
The Lemonicks, however, did collaborate on a story for People magazine
about a 50th reunion of Holocaust survivors. Lemonick’s family includes
Hannah, his nine-year-old daughter, and Ben, his 26-year-old stepson,
a medical student.
For Amazon.com, Lemonick described his working habits. "Ideally,
I devote no more than about three hours a day to writing. After that,
I tend to be burned out. I never write on paper, it’s much too slow.
In fact, I find it hard to compose without the feel of a keyboard
under my fingers. I don’t tend to write `drafts’ per se, nor do outlines.
I figure that if I’m going to be spending time figuring out what to
say, I might as well be saying it as I go."
Lemonick’s new book, "Other Worlds," is proof that his description
of what he does is accurate. The introduction consists, not of a statement
of the purpose of the book, but of three vignettes showing scientists
at work. The vignettes attempt to dramatize the pursuit of science
and capture the thrill of discovery. They would be at home in People
magazine. The statement of the purpose of the book, — "to
give readers a sense of what’s going on right now in one of the most
exciting areas of current science" — appears in "A Note
on Sources," on the next to last page of text.
The opening vignette shows Paul Butler, a post-doctoral fellow, working
at his computer in 1995, and then summoning Geoffrey Marcy, his mentor,
when the computer readout gives firm evidence of the existence of
planets in the region of the star 70 Vir in the constellation Virgo,
some 35 light years from Earth. This observation, the culmination
of eight years’ work, was what convinced scientists that planets like
those in the solar system could accompany stars other than our Sun.
It was the moment that inspired a new spate of investigations of extra-solar
After a detour of four chapters devoted to the history of cosmology,
Butler and Marcy surface again at the 1996 meeting of the American
Astronomical Society, where they announce their discovery. By then,
the number of players in the book has reached the proportions of a
Russian novel. An index to people mentioned, with brief characterizations,
would have been a welcome addition to the book, as would have been
a glossary of technical terms.
What Lemonick does superbly is to portray the problems
of actually doing science — the difficulties with equipment, the
problems with the weather, the disaster of failing to consider a small
factor that undoes the entire structure of future calculations, the
impinging of an investigator’s personal life. He describes the personal
rivalries and competitions that made another cosmologist observe that
the strongest force in the universe is not gravity, but jealousy.
Lemonick vividly sets the scene at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii,
14,000 feet above sea level, where blizzards can occur and where "a
brisk walk can leave you gasping for breath" because of the thinness
of the air. Furthermore, Lemonick acts as a cheerleader for the Search
for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Formerly government supported,
the project is now in private hands. I was happy for his support of
this enterprise. There could be life out there, and not looking is
a sure way not to find it. You have to buy a ticket if you want to
win the lottery.
Some aspects of the book were not rigorous enough for my taste. Lemonick
makes much of the Drake equation formulated by astronomer Frank Drake
in 1961. This equation states that the number of detectable civilizations
equals the rate at which sun-like stars form planets, times the fraction
of stars that form planets, times the number of planets per solar
system hospitable to life, times the fraction of planets where life
emerges, times the fraction of life-bearing planets where intelligence
evolves, times the fraction of such planets where the inhabitants
develop interstellar communication, times the length of time such
civilizations continue to communicate before they lose interest or
blow themselves to atoms or succumb to natural causes.
The equation strikes me as being an excellent common-sense shorthand
summary of the factors that limit the number of detectable civilizations.
However, it is not clear to me that it is of much use for predicting
anything that you don’t already know. Lemonick deems this equation
second only to Einstein’s E = MC2. Reputable scientists whom I polled
had never heard of the Drake equation, though they were quick to propose
other equations as being of prime importance for 20th-century science.
Lemonick further undermines his credibility for me by stating that
"equations are things that professor scrawl on blackboards or
put into textbooks. Equations are a signal that this is real, not
science fiction." Maybe it’s merely a matter of terminology here,
but I would prefer to define equations as mathematical statements
that describe relationships. Never mind the blackboard. Then again,
Lemonick’s choice may be determined by his mission to popularize science,
as he so successfully does.
Lemonick is not sure what his next project will be. He’s not even
sure if it will be about astronomy. Meanwhile, he is busy as a full-time
staff writer for Time magazine. "Most of the time I’m working
on the news story of week," he says. Still, by the time he gets
around to thinking about his next book, the investigations that he
describes in "Other Worlds" will probably have generated further
advances in cosmology. Despite his present uncertainty, astronomy
may, once again, be a likely subject.
— Elaine Strauss
609-921-8454. Free. Friday, May 8, 5:30 p.m.
Tuesday, May 26, 7 p.m.
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