The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Ron
    March 26, 2010

    I sense a selection principle for book publishing biased towards topics amenable to dorm-room bull sessions which tend to maximize sales.

  2. #2 Geoff
    March 26, 2010

    Fair comments all, including the fact that the entire subject is borderline science fiction, but that’s how many scientific subject take their first steps. I’d argue that SETI as it’s carried out currently is a very useful hobby to go alongside “proper” science…just look at the way the public have embraced distributed computing because of the SETI@home project.

  3. #3 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 27, 2010

    Of course the subject of SETI overlaps Science Fiction. Science Fiction authors who are also Scientists, such as Dave Brin (Ph.D., Astrophysics), Greg Benford (Ex-Chair of Astrophysics, UCI), Geoff Landis (ex-NASA Professor of Astronautical Engineering at MIT) and Carl Sagan (Professor at Cornell), Dr. Thomas D. McDonough (a student of Carl Sgan’s, and former Director of Seti for The Planetary Society) and I have comprehensively reviewed the literature on SETI. I’ve written 60,000 words of a new novel on the subject in the past couple of months, again and again returning the characters and setting where the Fermi Question was first asked.

    I do agree that the focus on Radio is a foolish mistake. I’ve been saying so in print since 1979 (albeit the article read by millions did not appear until early 1980).

    “Star Power for Supersocieties” [Omni, ed. Ben Bova and Robert Sheckley, Apr 1980] ISSN-0149-8711, $2.00
    1st popular article to predict giant black hole in the center of Milky Way galaxy;
    1st popular discussion of J. Post invention “gravity wave telegraph”

    I look forward to reading The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies.

    Chad — you might try a little harder to explain why Enrico Fermi, Dr. David Brin, Dr. Gregory Benford, Dr. Geoffrey Landis, Dr. Carl Sagan, Dr. Thomas D. McDonough, Paul Davies, and I are all fools.

  4. #4 neil b
    March 28, 2010

    Although Davies is focusing on radio evidence, this may be a good place to repost a comment I made at Backreaction, concerning the contradictory ironies of the “Fermi Paradox” (~ “They should exist and be able to get there – as by self-replicating automata – why *don’t* we see them or remnants around?”):

    I have a big gripe regarding the ET debate. It’s the discordance between “the Fermi Paradox” (mentioned here a few times) and skeptical disdain of UFOs. The FP proposes that ETs should be common enough, and at least one ETC would send robotic vehicles here by now, etc. Then it asks (curiously to those who believe there are signs of visitation, even if not “proof”): “why aren’t they here?”

    Well, it’s kind of weird for one faction to propose “they should be here, why *don’t* we see them” and another faction to say, “the claims that ET spacecraft (aside from whether occupied or not) have been seen are not credible, since it’s so hard to get here.” Yeah, I know there are other reasons to doubt UFO sightings but that isn’t the point addressed by this discrepancy. The discrepancy is: those who say they could and should have gotten here, v. those who say it’s too hard to get here (aside from any other issues.) That’s just incompatible in general at least.

    But the doubts of the latter are usually taken for granted in most discussions of the UFO issue. We rarely find the FP attitude accepted in those arguments, such that other complaints (e.g. why not good radar contact and confirmed by NORAD, why do they dicker around scaring ordinary people instead of contacting agencies, why the strange variety of craft and entities, etc. and going on decade after decade etc) become the key issue instead. This is strange.

    BTW, some say we do have good radar evidence etc. But some top researchers like Jacques Vallee and J Allen Hynek (I could and would play him if a movie is ever made) say the UFO phenomenon does not come across as a rational ET expedition etc. [But again, no resolution of contradictory messaging regarding the *viability* of such visitation.]

  5. #5 Birger Johansson
    March 29, 2010

    The polymath and visionary Stanislaw Lem wrote a lot about “Silentium Universii”, and represents a rather pessimistic view: different psychozooica with very different evolutionary histories cannot be assumed to have much in common, and communication may even be meaningless. In his last novel, “Fiasco”, he proposed that contact would be most likely to be meaningful in a brief period after a civilization has reached space, and is adressing the global environmantal problems likely to challenge all embryonic civilizations.
    After that, the civilizations will likely diverge on very different paths. The conservative civilizations -who pursue low-energy solutions to survive- will be silent.
    Nascent supercivilizations will take paths that we cannot predict, and assumptions about their willingness to make contact with “primitives” are premature.

  6. #6 Neil B ♪
    April 2, 2010

    Uh, Birger – I think the so-called “conservative”, low-energy civilizations are more likely to actually survive, by not using up resources faster than can be replenished. We’ll be crunched by peak oil (look that up) and other peaks in the coming decades. It won’t be pretty.

  7. #7 Lord
    April 27, 2010

    Maybe they are in hiding against potentially hostile aliens.

  8. #8 Douglas Watts
    April 28, 2010

    “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.”

    This statement does not sustain even cursory analysis. Even the most superficial spectral examination of Earth would show it is unique among the planets due to its atmospheric and surface character.

    The statement “everything you could possibly want is readily available in the gas giants” presupposes that you already know “what” an alien species from another star system would be looking for. If they are alive, presumably they would be at least curious about places where life might exist in our solar system, and that is only on Earth.

    This is a pretty poor excuse for a book review.

  9. #9 Chad Orzel
    April 28, 2010

    This is a pretty poor excuse for a book review.

    I’m sorry you feel that way. Here, have a complete refund of the purchase price.

  10. #10 IanW
    April 28, 2010

    “…everything you could possibly want is readily available in the gas giants…”

    Not if what you want is a habitable planet with lots of water and a nice oxygen atmosphere!

  11. #11 yogi-one
    April 28, 2010

    This is fun subject to speculate on, possibly because the mind can roam free, since as you say, there’s so little real data against which to check any ideas.

    It’s a great way to get dozens of blog comments, and apparently to sell a book, too.

    At our level, space travel takes too long, and our attention spans are too short. Even assuming you could approach a significant fraction of lightspeed without crippling effects on your body, lets look at a trip of 5000 lightyears. That’s longer than our current cycles of civilization. To do that you would have to have a space-traveling society that cut all ties to the home civilization. If you came back, it would be like someone from Mohenjo Daro suddenly landing in the middle of New York City. No common language, no common social history.

    The only conceivable way to travel these distances is to be able to bend spacetime back on itself and pop through to a different point in spacetime, and somehow conserve your biological integrity in the process.

    So, for all intents and purposes, it’s a vanishingly small probability that beings more or less like us (carbon-based tool-users that colonize new frontiers)are roaming around looking for us.

    The other possibility is that space-traveling civilizations are already functioning in dimensions we don’t see. In all likelihood, they wouldn’t see us either.

    So for now, it is best left in the realm of entertaining distraction. Which is great for blogs and airplane books.