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Review: Alien Universe

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Alien Universe: Extraterrestrial Life in Our Minds and in the Cosmos
by Don Lincoln
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013
hardcover, 208 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-4214-1072-2

“Where is everybody?” When Enrico Fermi uttered those words during a visit to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the summer of 1950, he was not referring to his lunchtime companions. Instead, the question arose from an earlier discussion about extraterrestrial life and interstellar travel. The crux of his question was that, if there were other alien civilizations in the galaxy, they should be able to colonize the galaxy in a very short time compared to the lifetime of the galaxy. Yet, any evidence of such civilizations has eluded our detection. So, where are they?

This question, dubbed the Fermi Paradox, has been a central question in the field that has, in recent decades, evolved into astrobiology. In the past, it might be possible to answer this question by concluding that life itself, or even planets, might be rare. However, the discovery of a cornucopia of extrasolar planets, including those with sizes and orbits similar to the Earth (a study earlier this month concluded that about one in five Sun-like stars have Earth-sized worlds in their habitable zones), plus the discovery of extremeophiles on Earth in locations previously thought inhospitable to life, have fattened the initial terms of the drake Equation, the formula that estimates the number of civilizations in the galaxy. How many of these worlds might support intelligent life, and how long-lived such civilizations might be, remain mysteries.

Alien Civilizations doesn’t attempt to answer Fermi’s famous question. Instead, the point of the book is to “discuss the prevailing vision of Aliens held by the general public” today and in the past.

The lack of discoveries of, or other knowledge about, extraterrestrial civilizations has not been a barrier to speculation about them, by both scientists and broader society. Our state of knowledge and speculation about such life is the subject of Alien Civilizations, by Don Lincoln. A physicist (working, coincidentially, at Fermilab), Lincoln takes a two-part approach to the study of what he calls “Aliens,” with a capital “A”—how he distinguishes intelligent extraterrestrial life from simpler, and likely more commonplace, alien life. The first part looks at Aliens in fiction, from 19th century accounts of life on the Moon published in the New York Sun through popular science fiction movies and television shows like Star Trek, Star Wars, and The X-Files. (There’s less in the book about how Aliens are depicted in science fiction novels and short stories where, freed from the constraints of special effects and makeup budgets, authors are free to explore concepts beyond the humanoid variations commonly seen on the screen.) He also devotes a chapter to some of the more famous “flying saucer” and other UFO sightings, although he treats them very skeptically: he notes, in the book’s introduction, that such tales of Alien visitation are “exceedingly unlikely” even if the prospects of Aliens in general are more likely.

The second part of the book shifts from society to science, looking at the potential for intelligent life from an astrobiological viewpoint. This part, a little shorter than the first, goes through some familiar topics like the Fermi Paradox and Drake Equation, as well as the biological requirements for life in general, intelligent or otherwise, and SETI searches. Although SETI has suffered from uneven funding over the years, Lincoln notes that the rapid advances in exoplanet studies may make it possible in the coming decades to determine if some of the “Earth-like” worlds being detected are, in fact, like the Earth in their ability to support life. (Others are more skeptical given the funding constraints those efforts are now facing to develop the next-generation observatories needed to make those discoveries.)

Alien Civilizations doesn’t attempt to answer Fermi’s famous question. Instead, Lincoln writes, the point of the book is to “discuss the prevailing vision of Aliens held by the general public” today and in the past. To help demonstrate that, he writes that he asked a large group of children aged 4 to 11 to draw what they imagined an Alien to be. A sample of those illustrations showed a lot of similarities: vaguely humanoid, often with antennae and extra appendages; some with the bulbous head and elongated eyes associated with the “grays” of sci-fi and UFO lore. (Lincoln adds that most of the kids drew their Aliens with smiles, so at least they are friendly—unless they’re just elated about conquering us.) This suggests the concept of intelligent alien life is deeply embedded in our society today, even if they remain elusive to science.