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March 2002
 
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Habitable Planets for Man by Stephen H. Dole (1970)

This remarkably influential volume is the second edition, a more filled-out argument about what makes planets livable. No professional astronomers had paid much attention to this, so it fell to Dole, an engineer at Hughes Labs in Santa Monica, to work through the myriad parameters that must be just so to make a world as fine as ours.

The book's climactic chapter is "An Appreciation of the Earth," and indeed, that is the book's effect. The first edition provoked a popularization by Isaac Asimov, but the second made speculative planetology respectable. Soon enough, the battle over whether we and Earth are very special and rare, or so-what common, raged in The Astrophysical Journal but not in the pages of Analog.

Dole had unified many threads that ran through science fiction, dressing them up for polite scientific company. His fate was to be largely forgotten. I had him down to my campus to give a colloquium in 1973 and he was grateful; he had never been asked to speak at a university. He died in 2000 a few miles from U. C. Irvine, proud to have authored a book that sold a few thousand copies in a decade. That same year, the latest entry in the debate, Rare Earth, sold more than 50,000 copies in six months. Dole's slim, lonely volume is still more fun to read, and more precise.

—Gregory Benford

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