Somebody at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has a really high opinion of this blog, as they not only sent me an Advance Reading Copy of Paul Davies’s forthcoming book about SETI, The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence, they followed it up with a finished hardcover. I read the ARC on the plane on the way back from the March Meeting, and put the hardcover in the mailbox of a colleague who just finished co-teaching a course on astrobiology.
This book is being released in 2010, which Davies cites as the 50th anniversary of an active Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program, whose origin he traces to a search run by Frank Drake in 1960. Fifty years on seems a pretty good point to take stock of our efforts in this area, and not coincidentally, Davies recently ran a workshop at the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science on doing just that, which he mined heavily for material to put in this book.
The book gives a survey of the history of SETI as it’s been carried out, and notes that it has been 1) unsuccessful to date, and 2) entirely radio based. From there, it offers some speculations on why radio might not be the best way to look for aliens, and some suggestions as to novel alternatives that might be tried. The final chapters discuss what might result from the discovery of a bona fide alien signal, and how such a thing ought to be handled by scientists, media, and governments.
This is a slightly difficult book for me to review, because there’s a limit to how seriously I can take the subject. (I said the same thing about the last book of his I reviewed– maybe he’s just a difficult author for me…)
The search for alien life, along with attendant issues like the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox, is one of those issues that I can’t get all that worked up about. It’s really easy to come up with plausible reasons why we haven’t found aliens or been visited by aliens– Davies lists a number of the standard ones, and there are plenty he leaves out. (My current favorite Fermi paradox solution is that even within our solar system, Earth is totally insignificant. From outside, our solar system is the Sun, Jupiter, and some other stuff. If aliens with the technology to survive interstellar travel at slower-than-light speeds came here, there would be absolutely no reason to bother visiting Earth– everything you could possibly want is readily available in the gas giants.) And those are just the reasons humans can think of– aliens with alien thought processes would probably come up with a huge number of new ones that wouldn’t occur to us.
As a result, the whole business comes down to people getting worked up about the likelihood of events whose probability we have absolutely no sensible way to estimate. I just can’t work up much excitement about this, any more than I can get fired up for speculations about Boltzmann brains or whether we’re really being simulated in a giant supercomputer elsewhere in the multiverse. It’s great stuff for dorm-room bull sessions, but doesn’t mean very much in the end.
In a way, books on this topic are probably more interesting for what they say about the time and place of their writing than what they tell us about the universe. This is no exception– the suggestions include elements of Kurzweil-esque transhumanism, a dab of nanotech, a dollop of bioengineering, a pinch of quantum computing, a dash of environmental catastrophe, etc. It’s a great time capsule of currently fashionable Big Ideas.
(Of course, you could get most of this from science fiction, too. Looking down the list of suggestions regarding alien life, my thought is, “If it hasn’t already appeared in a Charlie Stross novel, wait a week or two, and Charlie will have a new book out.”)
There’s some good stuff here. The book provides a nice, compact history of SETI and the issues surrounding it, and gives good explanations of most of the big questions that have been raised. And the suggestions about what aliens might really be like, or where we really ought to be looking are no sillier than most of the other things you’ll find in your local chain-store science section. In the end, though, I can’t take this as much more than an airplane book– an engaging enough read to distract me from the inconveniences of cross-country flights, but nothing I want to spend too much time thinking deeply about.