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Book Review

The Science of Aliens and
Strangers in the Night

Reviewed by Robert J. Sawyer

The Science of Aliens by Clifford Pickover.
Basic Books, 197 pages, US$21.00 / Cdn$30.00, 1998.

Strangers in the Night: A Brief History of Life on Other Worlds by David E. Fisher and Marshall Jon Fisher. Counterpoint, 348 pages, US$25.00, 1998.

Copyright © 1999 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

First published in The Ottawa Citizen, Sunday, January 17, 1999.

The second millennium is drawing to a close, and the media are compiling their lists of the biggest stories of the year, the decade, and even the century. But I know which story would have been the biggest of the entire millennium, had it come to pass: the certain discovery that life exists or had existed somewhere else besides Earth.

It wouldn't have mattered whether the story had been the arrival of aliens in the flesh, the receipt of radio signals from them, or the unequivocal discovery of their fossil remains or artifacts on one of our neighbouring worlds. The mere fact — if it is a fact — that we are not alone in the universe would have been the greatest discovery of the last 1,000 years.

Sadly, though, that story remains unwritten. Despite the popular fondness for tales of UFOs, rational folk don't take such things seriously — not one single case bears up under close scrutiny.

Still, I vividly remember calling my wife at her office on August 7, 1996, with tears in my eyes telling her that a NASA press conference had just announced the existence of fossilized Martian microbes in a meteorite discovered in Antarctica.

If there had been life on Mars, then Earth would no longer be unique — and it would therefore seem much more likely that there might be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. We desperately want to know that there are other intelligent races, especially ones more advanced than us — for their mere existence, as astronomer Carl Sagan often used to point out, would mean it is possible for a species to survive its nuclear infancy. Adolescent humans may not respect their parents, but the mere existence of mom and dad is proof that it is possible to survive the trial that is adolescence. But humanity, an adolescent race, has no proof that what we're going through — discovering the ability to destroy on a grand scale — is survivable.

Unfortunately, the putative Martian fossils turned out, in all likelihood, to be just unusual rock formations, and no unambiguous alien radio broadcast has ever been detected. We are, despite the fervent desire of many of us to the contrary, still very much alone.

Two new books examine our fascination with alien life. Clifford Pickover, a staff researcher for IBM and a columnist for Discover magazine, weighs in with an eminently readable account called The Science of Aliens. And University of Miami cosmochemist (a wonderful word) David E. Fisher and his writer son Marshall Jon Fisher have penned Strangers in the Night: A Brief History of Life on Other Worlds.

There are two ways to write a science book: the historical perspective and the what's-new-and-exciting approach. Pickover chooses the latter, more-interesting one, in my view. He dives right into modern thought and speculation, presenting new ideas on page one and not stopping until the end.

The Fishers, on the other hand, feel compelled to wade us through hoary old material that hundreds of other books have already explored, all in the name of some sort of historical context.

Thanks, guys, but a century-old mistaken belief in canals on Mars is really of little interest today; that's a history not of life on other worlds, but of bad science. For me, their book didn't get rolling until page 130, when they begin to discuss credible, modern possibilities for alien life, beginning with the theorized subterranean ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa. Ever since the recent flybys by the Galileo probe, that ocean is considered by many to be the only other possible abode of biology in our solar system, now that it seems fairly certain that Mars is, and probably always was, sterile. Liquid water is almost certainly needed for life, and it apparently exists nowhere in the solar system except here on Earth and, perhaps, on Europa.

The difference between the Pickover and the Fisher books is simple: Pickover puts the aliens centre stage; all of the book's (unfortunately rather crude) illustrations are of plausible extraterrestrial life forms, with multiple limbs, strange sense organs and outlandish physical forms (he even dedicates the book to one of his favourite science-fiction aliens, the bizarre Cheela, from physicist Robert L. Forward's inventive 1980 novel Dragon's Egg). Pickover's ultimate point, although it's made obliquely, is that none of the flying-saucer aliens we've heard about — humanoids with big heads and black eyes — are probable; aliens will, by definition, be alien — unlike us physically, and probably emotionally, as well.

The Fishers, on the other hand, put human beings in the fore. They discuss the personalities and politics of a science that has, so far, no actual subject matter. Most of the book's illustrations are photos of astronomers: Strangers in the Night tells the stories of various attempts they have made to actually discover alien life.

As the Fishers write: "Our focus on these ideas has been stimulated by the very exciting scientific breakthroughs made in the past couple of years: the discoveries of possible fossil organisms in a meteorite from Mars; of planets around a variety of different stars; of a possible ocean on one of Jupiter's moons, combined with the presence of life deep in our own oceans, hidden from sunlight, and the vast improvements in computer technology and radio astronomy which have made possible the first really optimistic searches for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations."

Tying them all together, in the Fishers' view, is the battle for funding — the struggle between those, like them and me, who consider the search's importance to be intuitively obvious, and others who, as they term it, wallow in "skepticism, indifference, and ignorance."

The Fishers go into great detail about the Viking landers sent to Mars twenty-odd years ago and about SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence by using radio telescopes, but they do make it all quite fascinating, and reveal tidbits that even a space buff might be unaware of. (Every book on SETI points out, bitterly, that U.S. Senator William Proxmire gave the project his "golden fleece" award for conspicuously wasteful government spending, but the Fishers also recount the subsequent meeting between Proxmire and Carl Sagan during which Sagan won Proxmire over, gaining his support for continuing the search.)

My natural inclination, as a science-fiction writer, should be to like Pickover's book better. He's enormously respectful of the work in speculative biology done by my colleagues (whereas the Fishers occasionally sneer about "the stuff of science fiction"), and he examines many of the most interesting aliens created in science-fiction books (relying perhaps a bit too heavily, though, on Wayne Douglas Barlowe's 1979 art book Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials for his inspiration).

Although I prefer Pickover's immediacy, there's a gosh-wow quality to his prose, and a regrettable tendency to put forward mere notions as if there were a scientific basis for believing them to be true: "I would expect most intelligent aliens to have young requiring a long learning period, promoted by slow growth and prolonged development."

Well, that's as good a guess as any, but without a sample of something other than the terrestrial brand of life, it's pretty meaningless. And indeed, as the Fishers note, "until we actually find life somewhere else we should admit that we know nothing about the probability of its occurrence. Life on Earth could be unique; until we know otherwise, we are arguing faith instead of science."

Perhaps the next millennium will bring the answer to whether we are alone in the cosmos. Indeed, the Fishers conclude their book by predicting that the answer will come within the next century: We'll either discover extraterrestrials, or will have looked long enough and hard enough to be able to conclude that they don't in fact exist. The one thing that Pickover, the Fishers, and I all clearly share is a profound sense that discovering that we are indeed alone would be tragic.

[1999 bionote] Robert J. Sawyer is a Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer in Toronto. His latest novel is Factoring Humanity from Tor Books; visit his web site at sfwriter.com.

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