This is a good primer on what we know about the universe, which is largely limited to our observations of those planets nearest us - and what we see is a whole lot of variety. None of the 8 planets in our solar system are alike, and astronomers aren't finding a lot of planets elsewhere that resemble them. In fact, the conditions we find nearest to us don't appear to be normal or ordinary elsewhere. Taylor discusses the composition of the planets and the current theories on how each was formed after the Big Bang. He discusses a broad range of things like comets and asteroids and orbits and tilts (and lots of other stuff that was a bit over my head!) and it was fascinating to read.
This probably isn't the best introduction to the subject and I found I had to go slowly and frequently re-read pages to understand. Taylor often uses terms that aren't included in his glossary in the front of the book, and sometimes they aren't even explained at the same time he first uses them but much later on. And it was irritating that he begins many sections with quotes that are only attributed in the endnotes of the book - I wish the author's name and maybe even the date had been included with the quote for context (the notes in general seemed thin). But that sounds like I'm complaining more than I am and honestly I enjoyed this book and found it very insightful. (In fact, the ideas and concepts were so awe-inspiring that I was embarrassed to think of the hours people - not me - waste watching something so stupid as "reality television"!)
As for the question of whether or not intelligent life can be found elsewhere; I have my own opinions but they're based on my religious beliefs - something Professor Taylor is especially derisive and condescending about. Initially I was rather offended, but there was much to learn from his book even if his faith in admittedly imperfect models and ever-evolving knowledge left me shaking my head. Most eye-opening, however, was his conclusion that intelligent life on earth (us) was the result of so many "accidents" (his word, not mine) and chance events that the chance of such randomness occurring elsewhere is essentially zero. His "impressive" list of accidents includes:
- the size of the material that formed our solar system was ideal so that only one sun formed
- the size of Jupiter (and that there was only one Jupiter) shielded the earth from continual bombardment of comets
- the 500 ppm of water on earth which was "accidentally contributed by icy planetisimals" made plate techtonics and continents possible, and allowed for the formation of granite and ore deposits (which enabled advanced technology)
- the collision that formed the moon, creating the ideal rotation (24 hour days rotating forward, not backward) and a tilt that provides seasons
- that same collision also removed any thick primitive atmosphere
- the asteroid that closed the Age of Reptiles and allowed for the rise of mammals
- and many more...
(I received this book from Amazon Vine.)