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:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…