Skip to main content

We Are Not Alone – Dirk Schulze-Makuch & David Darling ****

I am a little wary of books that make extravagant claims on the cover, then don’t entirely deliver. In this case, the dramatic subtitle is WE HAVE ALREADY FOUND EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE. Now, I admit ‘We think we have probably already found extraterrestrial life, though it is just bacterial, so don’t get too excited’ isn’t quite as powerful a tag line, but it would have been closer to the truth.
This doesn’t stop the book itself from being excellent. In the first half there is an in-depth exploration of the findings and uncertainties that have come out of the Mars probes, with a very useful explanation of why what was found is highly suggestive of the possibility of life without being definitive. We get a real sense of the ways that lifeforms could exist in environments that were once thought uninhabitable, plus a truly fascinating set of results that seem so strange there has to be something interesting going on, whether it’s life or not.
The second part is equally interesting, covering Venus and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn – the other possibilities for extraterrestrial life in the solar system. I had heard quite a lot about the moons, but the Venus possibilities (of life existing in the atmosphere, where the temperatures aren’t so blistering) was a new one to me that really tickled the mental facilities.
What really comes across, even though the authors don’t explicitly push this line, is how much we are wasting money on manned missions, when we could be doing much more robotically to explore these amazing worlds. With a suitable investment, rather than the faffing about trying to get people back on the Moon, we would be able to send a lander to Mars that could pick up samples and return them to Earth – the ultimate essential as there is only so much a remote lab can achieve. If ever there was a good rallying cry for shifting funding from manned spaceflight to robotic missions, this is it.
Finished off with a final short section on life beyond the solar system, this is a mostly readable (the writing is just occasionally in need of a bit of a lift) and informative insider view. I would have liked to have been told why the old term xenobiology has been replaced with astrobiology, which sounds much less exciting, but you can’t fault the authors’ knowledge and enthusiasm. I’ll even let them off that dubious claim on the cover. An excellent addition to the genre.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …