Life on Other Planets: A Memoir of Finding My Place in the Universe by Aomawa Shields, PhD

c.2023, Viking                                   
352 pages

By Terri Schlichenmeyer
The Truth Contributor

Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight…

And the second and third and you’ll just keep wishing until you run out of desires. You’ll never run out of stars, though, so you can spend all night wishing and do it again tomorrow. Wish hard enough, work even harder and, as in the new book Life on Other Planets by Aomawa Shields, PhD, you may see your hopes come true.

Growing up in a “self-sufficient and independent” all-female household that prized education and encouraged her love of the planets, Aomawa Shields was raised securely on a foundation of science and “the sky was my first love.” She didn’t know then that the night sky could become a career; she remembers wanting, instead, to be a cheerleader like the pretty white girls she saw on TV.

Her PhD-educated mother “winced” over that but delighted in Shields’ fascination with stars and her embrace of STEM subjects. By the time she was 12 years old, Shields had mapped out her entire future career.

To get there, she read as much about astronomy as she could find. She “devoured” TV shows about space before applying to attend an elite prep school that took her from her California home to New Hampshire. At Exeter, she says, “As soon as I could, I took astronomy courses….” She dreamed of applying at NASA.

She also auditioned for a play and landed a good part. Acting, Shields learned, was fun and she was quite good at it; storytelling, making an audience feel a certain way, it was addictive. And so, when she began struggling academically in college and a professor told her that maybe it was time to put astronomy aside, another “love” was waiting for her in the wings. She continued to attend astronomy classes, but he also secretly auditioned for parts before moving back to California for her new career.

Still, she says, she wasn’t satisfied. Astronomy and acting – how was this going to work? She had two loves, and was about to meet a third…

Pick up Life on Other Planets, and you may be tempted to put it right back down. The subject matter is pretty heavy. It’s very science-y and what if it’s over your head?

You might get lost, right?

Not really. Author Aomawa Shields does bring a lot of science into her tale, but it comes with a lot of gentle wide-eyed wonder and explanations that are easy for an average reader to grasp. There’s beauty in what Shields sees, and she shares her excitement in a way that will make you see the sky with fresh eyes.

That’s the first leg of this book. The other part is about Shields’ journey to fit into two worlds, one foot in each of them, while still being true to herself and her interests.

Readers who love science will love this book, but you don’t have to be a STEM expert to enjoy it. Find Life on Other Planets and see if it doesn’t brighten your summertime reading.