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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,
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
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,
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
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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