Monday, 8 February 2016

If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens... Where is Everybody? - Stephen Webb ***(*)

I started this book with a sense of foreboding. The subtitle is 'Seventy-five solutions to the Fermi paradox and the problem of extraterrestrial life'. Any premise based on giving 75 different answers to the same question - in this case, effectively 'Where are the aliens?' - sounds like a trainspotter of a book. A title that is obsessed with collecting every possible viewpoint, over and above any value that can be gained from reading it. However, the first proper chapter, giving some background to the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, and the 'where is everybody' paradox that it is named after him, reassured me hugely, as it was entertaining and well written.

I can honestly say that if Stephen Webb had continued in this vein and had written a book about the Fermi paradox and its possible solutions in the same narrative style as his chapter on Fermi and the origins of the paradox, I would have given this book four to five stars. That chapter demonstrated just how well Webb can write. But the format of 75 'different' solutions lets him down. By about the 12 mark, the whole thing was getting a trifle samey. And by solution 20, I was skip reading, searching for interesting bits.

The book has a lovely range and covers many fascinating topics - for example, it went from Bayes' theorem to stone axe manufacturing in a few pages - but the constant return to yet another solution to the Fermi paradox gets, frankly, boring. Structured as a continuous narrative, the content of this book would have been excellent, but as 75 bitty 'solutions' it just doesn't work very well. 

This proved particularly irritating when Webb goes through all the different reasons why life could be rare in the universe, and says at the end of each, over and over variants on 'but of itself, this is probably not enough to justify the conclusion.' I found myself wanting to throw the book against the wall and scream 'But why should it be taken by itself? Why not combine the solutions?' .... And then Webb cheats and does exactly that in his own 'solution', number 75.

This was so near an excellent piece of popular science (I'm not really sure why it's part of Springer's 'Science and Fiction' series, as it merely references ideas from SF, but the majority of popular science books do that), just let down by the structure. I'd also say that the publisher is making a mistake pricing the book as if it were an academic title: it's more expensive than any normal hardback popular science title, let alone a paperback. (Academics may have free access to the ebook from Springer ebook deals.)

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Review by Brian Clegg

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