Book Review on Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets

Book Review on Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life beyond Our Solar System

The book, Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life beyond Our Solar System was written by Ray Jawayardhana. He is a planet hunter, professor and Canada Research Chair in Observational astrophysics at the University of Toronto. This book gives readers insight and knowledge on the cutting edge technology used by astronomers to peer into planetary birth sites and capture pictures, discusses the prospects of discovering alien life and the composition of our solar system. In addition, Jawayardhana explains the different planet-hunting techniques now proving so successful in revealing the bounty of worlds, and the theories on how planetary systems are formed.

The solar system comprises of 8 known planets that orbit around the sun. Mercury is the nearest to the sun while Neptune is the furthest from the sun. Additionally, the solar system consists of the moon, comets, asteroids, minor planets such as Pluto and Eris and dust and gas. The gravitational force of the sun keeps the solar system together. Research on extra solar system conducted by astronomers and scientists will eventually lead to a rise in the number of heavenly bodies in the years to come.


Methods used to detect planets beyond our solar system

            Astronomers have had to develop clever methods that take advantage of the physics of light and gravity in order to find extra solar planets. The invention of the telescope revolutionized the study of the solar system. In 1610, Galileo discovered four moons circling Jupiter which proved the existence of heavenly bodies which did not orbit the earth (Galileo 17). Scientists have had to come up with various techniques in order to see faint planets which are hard to view next to bright stars. The Doppler technique uses Albert Einstein’s property of gravity to bend light thus magnifies the brightness of a distant star temporarily when a nearer star happens to cross the line of sight. The spectral line shifts to trace the subtle dance of stars as planets tug on them. Astrometry is another technique which was used to study binary stars. Astrometry revealed a faint cinder orbiting Sirius. In 1862, Alvan Graham Clark was able to view Sirius B which is a thousand times fainter than Sirius A through an 18 inch refracting telescope he had built (Clark 50). Since there is no way of going back in time, astrologers have to find clues on how the solar system was formed via other means. Experiments and detailed observations of stellar nurseries such as the Orion Nebula have revealed clues to the formation of stars and to some extent the solar system. The first photograph of the Nebula was taken by Henry Draper; a professor at New York University using an 11-inch telescope in 1880 (Draper 17). The study of stellar nurseries was spearheaded by the works of William Herschel some 200 years ago. He is credited with discovering the planet Uranus. Modern computer simulations which adhere to the laws of physics can follow the collapse; under the influence of gravity of a gas cloud into a star.  Jawayardhana introduces the new science of astrobiology, which uses spectral analysis to seek evidence of life. Under good sky conditions, the nebula resembles a fuzzy patch as seen by the naked eye even though no record of it exists up until the telescope was developed. A French lawyer, Nicholas-Claude Fabri de Pereisc, is credited with discovering the nebula in 1610 through the telescope. Additionally, astronomers now use 6 to 10 meter telescopes such as the Keck in Hawaii, the Maggelan and the Very Large Telescope in Chile and the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Texas to survey red dwarf stars.

Surprising information from this book

In the fall of 1995, astronomers announced definitive evidence of the first planet orbiting a normal star other than the sun. It was an unusual large mass in an unexpected location which raised question marks over its nature thereby fueling a large debate about its existence. Using the Doppler technique to measure subtle velocity shifts in the parent star’s spectrum of light, six more discoveries were made in a year which later raised questions over the planetary birth process and revealed odd behaviors that Earth did not exhibit. These discoveries also challenged our preconception of the solar system. Most scientists were surprised by the star-hugging orbits of the first extra solar giant planets. Otto Struve was the exception in that he was able to effectively predict two exoplanet detection methods (Struve 68).  He suggested that most normal stars rotate slowly because much of their angular momentum had been transferred to the orbital motion of planets.

My thoughts on whether we will find life other planets

Exciting times lie ahead. There is no evidence of life in the already discovered planets which leads me to the conclusion that life only exists on Earth.  With the ever growing quest to discover new solar planets and finding out more about the existing planets, other planets are bound to be discovered in the near future. Over the past two decades alone, astronomers have uncovered a surprising variety of worlds in the outer realms of our solar system and beyond.  They have developed even more sophisticated instruments and technology which when mounted on telescopes reveals an unimaginable diversity of worlds. Bigger telescopes will eventually be created to observe exoplanets directly in the coming years which will enable more discoveries to be made. Moreover, the discovery of these planets makes it almost inevitable that others like them will be found.  A planet is detected when its orbit takes the planet across the path of its sun. The chance of this actually happening with any random orbit is one in 50 which therefore means that the exoplanets we can detect through the transit method are a minor representation of the exoplanets that exist. Additionally, NASA’s Kepler space telescope released its findings in February 2011 which revealed over 1000 planetary candidates.  These findings depict only candidates which need to be checked by other telescopes, but the expectation is that a vast majority of these are genuine planets. Other space observatories namely the Terrestrial Planet Finder and Darwin which are yet to funded  will be capable of analyzing the chemical composition of planetary atmospheres and detect signs of life around even relatively small stars. These theories and evidence are further proof of the existence of other planets in the solar system which are relatively unknown in the current time.


Jayawardhana, Ray. Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life Beyond Our Solar System. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. Internet resource.