Friday, 10 December 2010

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

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