July 2023

Life on Other Planets

By Aomawa Shields
Astrobiologist Aomawa Shields’ Life on Other Planets is an inspiring memoir about charting her own path and merging the two worlds of science and art.
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“I started my life with one thing: science. Astronomy, to be specific. And I dove into it,” writes Aomawa Shields in the introduction to her memoir, Life on Other Planets. “Then I found something else I liked: the arts. Acting, to be specific. So I dove into that instead. Neither one by itself felt fully right.” 

Beginning with her initial glimmers of love for the stars and planets as a preteen, Shields tells her story chronologically, with writing that is immediate, sometimes poetic. In a scene rich in detail, she recounts the snowy winter night when, as a high school student at Phillips Exeter Academy, she first glimpsed Jupiter and its moons through a telescope. “That I could measure something in space, just by looking—this was the shattered ceiling of the Earth, ascending up and through the atmosphere into nothing,” she writes. At MIT and then the University of Wisconsin, Shields steeped herself in astronomy. But the pull of acting, which she discovered in high school playing the role of Truvy in Steel Magnolias, never faded, and she eventually put her work in STEM on hold to pursue an M.F.A. in acting at UCLA.

Shields’ nonlinear path through science, acting, the arts and back to astronomy (she returned to graduate school at age 35 and is now a tenured professor of astronomy and physics at UC Irvine) makes up the rest of the memoir’s narrative. Yes, she faced a bevy of struggles: As a Black woman, Shields was buffeted by racism in graduate school, as well as by self-doubt and impostor syndrome. She’s also candid about the sometimes-difficult balance of marriage, family and work, and her worry about whether she’s “Black enough” in certain settings. Throughout, Shields is an illuminating guide to her own idiosyncratic journey, seamlessly unpacking complicated concepts about stars and planets.

In Life on Other Planets, Shields has written an inspiring memoir about charting her own path and merging her scientific and artistic pursuits. Along the way, she also gives us glimpses of the wonder she’s found while studying the cosmos.

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Life on Other Planets

Life on Other Planets

By Aomawa Shields
ISBN 9780593299180

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