Book Review – Astrobiology: A very short introduction

Astrobiology: A very short introduction – D.C. Catling
2013 Oxford University Press

David C. Caitling is a planetary scientist at the University of Washington at Seattle. He has an impressive record of publications in the area. You can see a more complete account of his work at:

“Astrobiology: A very short introduction” is a pretty good introduction to the topic. The author writes well and has the rare quality of being able to explain complex concepts in a simplified manner without being patronizing. This alone earns my respects. I would have slightly changed the order of the chapters because they jump from astronomy to chemistry to life (both known and as “we don’t know it”) and back again throughout the book. I was able to follow the book nonetheless, but only by being really focused.

Even though by far the information is accurate, you know the nitpicks are coming, don’t you? (:-)

I read it in ebook format, so I cannot give you the page numbers as I usually do, but it is easy to use the “search” function to find the referenced passages so you should have no problem looking for them. I will put the phrase/sentence between “quotes” followed by my remarks. Here we go!

**”In Darwin’s natural selection mechanism, the genetic variation in populations of individuals means that some are better adapted for greater reproductive success than others”

Close, but no cigar. There is a key component in this scheme that is indispensable to really understand it. The genetic variability of a population determines who lives and therefore who gets to reproduce as a function of the environment. In other words the “fittest” change as the environment changes.

**”Carbon can also build three-dimensional complexity by forming hexagonal rings that join together”

Yes, the benzene ring is usually associated with the chemistry of carbon, but there are all kinds of rings in the realm of organic chemistry, not only hexagonal ones.

**”…containing hexagonal rings of carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen atoms, which are the kind of rings found in DNA”

Please see my previous comment; also, in nucleic acids, the sugars are formed by a carbon ring that contains an oxygen atom. Also, only one type of nitrogen bases, the pyrimidines, are made of hexagonal rings. The purines are made of a six-atom ring combined with a five-atom one.

**”A more pleasant example is the flavouring limonene: the D form tastes like lemons but the L form is orange-flavoured”

I may be mistaken, but if memory serves, the D isomer of limonene **smells** like citrus fruits, while the L isomer smell like pine or turpentine.

When everything is said and done, a very good read, if you know a little bit about the topic beforehand.

Picture credit: Oxford University Press

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  1. Dear Oné:

    Thanks for your review. The short format of the book didn’t give much space to go into details about organic chemistry. However, other carbon rings (ribose, 5 carbons) are mentioned with respect to genetic molecules in Chapter 5 of the book.

    Regarding the taste of limonenes: Your info seems to be quoting wikipedia. Looking elsewhere, P. Laszlo (2007), in “History of Citrus”, U. Chicago Press, writes of carbonated soft drinks : “..most of them carbonated, of citrus flavor. This is the preferred taste in soft drinks. Traditionally, it is imparted by essential oils extracted from citrus peel, which contain the two limonenes, L -limonene— which evokes the orange—and/or D -limonene—which evokes the lemon”. (p.176 — you can search google-books for Laszlo +limonene +soft +drinks to pull up the page)

    I assumed that this is true, but I haven’t tasted the pure isolates myself. The CRC Handbook of Food Additives (2009, Michael Ash, 3rd ed., p. 1481) says that D-limonene has a “fresh, citrus taste”, so I think I’m safe on its lemon-like taste. Unfortunately, the same handbook doesn’t describe the taste of the L form. However, I agree that various authorities say that L-limonene has a sweet lemon-mint, piney smell.

    -Sincerely, David Catling


    1. Dear Dr. Caitling,

      Thank you very much for your comment and the clarification. Yes, the VSI format does not lend itself to extensive explanations; I have a proposal “running” for one.

      Going back to your book, I am looking into it in more detail to use it as supplementary reading in an astrobiology course that I co-teach with a physicist colleague.

      Again, I thank you very much for taking the time to write!




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