Thursday, 31 May 2007

Why Aren’t They Here? – Surendra Verma ***

The universe is packed full of mysteries, but one of them has to be the question asked by Surendra Verma’s book – why aren’t they here? “They” in this case, is little green men, or at least aliens of some kind. Given the scale of the universe, it seems to some people that it’s inevitable that there are aliens out there somewhere… only you’d think they would be more obvious than they are.
Of course, UFO fans would say they are pretty obvious – yet we aren’t exactly overwhelmed with aliens landing on the White House lawn, science fiction movie style. Surendra Verma sets out to show just what the chances are of aliens being out there, whether they are like to visit us, and what we can make of claims that they already have.
Along the way, Verma neatly brings in snippets of information, giving historical context to some of the science behind the discussion of aliens existing, whether it’s Aristotle’s ideas of just what the universe is, or Gauss’s idea to use banks of mirrors to signal to the inhabitants of the moon.
It should be a really interesting book, and in places Verma injects a lot of enthusiasm and energy, but often it rather sags. I think in part this is because it doesn’t have a cohesive slant on the topic. It’s more a list of “this person says this, but that person says that”, so you get bombarded with opposing views without any real help in sorting it all out. There’s no doubting that there’s a lot in here, whether it’s Drake’s equation for working out the probability of alien life existing, or details of the (often worryingly obscure) messages we have sent into space in an attempt to catch an alien’s attention.
One particularly irritating thing is the way Verma tends to start his many (many) little sections with a statement that seems to be saying something is true, then he modifies this to be just someone else’s theory. So he says, for instance, “Extraterrestrial intelligent life is widespread. Their reluctance to interact with us can be explained by the hypothesis that they have set aside our planet as part of a wilderness area or zoo.” Our attention is grabbed. Is there some amazing new breakthrough about to be announced? No, because next we hear this is a “controversial and demoralizing hypothesis” posited way back in 1973. The result of this repeatedly using this technique is irritation for the reader.
Not a bad summary of many different theories of alien life, plus our attempts to communicate, with some often entertaining historical context thrown in – but not a particularly exciting read.
Paperback:  
Review by Jo Reed

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