Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life
edited by Jim Al-Khalili
“Whither the space beasts, and where are they hiding?” asked Jason Rhode in PasteMagazine.com. In this “delightful, punchy” anthology, 20 scholars tackle what has long seemed the most unserious of questions— that is, before recent discoveries about the universe’s true vastness enticed scientists to revisit it. Theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili and the team he’s assembled offer conflicting opinions, said Rayyan al-Shawaf in CSMonitor.com. Evolutionary biologist Matthew Cobb is certain there’s no life on other planets, while astrobiologist Nathalie Cabrol just as forcefully rejects the idea that we’re alone in the cosmos. “This, perhaps counterintuitively, stands as one of the book’s strongest suits,” demonstrating how many ways there are to add scientific rigor to a conversation normally dominated by crackpots.
On this the contributors agree: Extraterrestrials would look nothing like those we’ve seen in movies, said Jennifer Senior in The New York Times. Instead, aliens most likely resemble extremophiles, the bacteria that somehow thrive in Earth’s salt lakes and volcanoes. Cobb’s essay provides the counterargument that since we only know of one moment in Earth’s 4.5 billion–year existence when life sprang from inert matter, the odds that such an event occurred on one of the universe’s merely 1 billion Earth-like exoplanets is small to begin with. A survey of science fiction aliens is a rare dud among these essays, the best of which are “far out in more ways than one.” Cosmologist Martin Rees suspects that, if inhabitants of Earth ever do make contact with alien intelligent life, the envoys won’t be human: We’ll be sending robots.
Still, this “always lucid” and “sometimes unexpectedly beautiful” book is most interesting on the subject of life on Earth, said Oliver Moody in The Times (U.K.). Look around, and you’ll find about 5 million Americans who claim to have once been abducted by aliens, while a highly educated cohort spends billions of dollars just listening for the faintest echo of another type of mind. “The real lesson is, the aliens are already here.”