Skip to main content

The Aliens are Coming! - Ben Miller *****

This book is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The packaging – from the exclamation mark in the title to the frequent use of words like “witty” and “entertaining” in the various celebrity endorsements, and the emphasis on the author’s track record as a comedian and TV personality – all lead you to envisage a flippant, unchallenging read. I opened the book expecting a light-hearted debunking of ufology (always good for a few laughs), followed by a journalistically glib recycling of the “real science” of SETI, exoplanets, extremophiles et al. But what I got went much, much deeper than that.

There’s a lot of science in this book – and not just the obvious topics. What other popular book on astrobiology embraces subjects like information entropy, or the anthropic principle, or gamma-ray bursts, or Zipf’s law? Miller’s explanations of the first two are as engaging and lucid as I’ve seen anywhere, and as for the last two – well, I never would have guessed they were relevant to SETI until he pointed it out.

A longstanding hobbyhorse of mine is that the aliens of popular imagination – as evidenced in sci-fi movies and UFO reports – look much too similar to homo sapiens to have any scientific credibility. Real aliens are going to be much more alien than that. It’s a point Miller makes in the very first pages of the book – and before long he’s gone even further. Professional scientists make analogous if less obvious mistakes. Most SETI initiatives are based on the unstated assumption that aliens are going to think and communicate in much the same way that Earth scientists do in the early 21st century. Astrobiologists tend to think of “life” as synonymous with multicellular DNA-based organisms, with so-called extremophiles being as weird as it gets (Miller, incidentally, thinks the extremophiles came first, so actually we’re the extreme ones). Even here on Earth, however, there may be non-DNA life in the form of desert varnish – the jury has been out on that one since Darwin’s time.

Despite the expectations set by that titular exclamation mark, anyone looking for dumbed-down science isn’t going to find it in this book. Quite the opposite, in fact. Although Miller has a lively, easy-to-read style, he clearly thinks like a scientist – and occasionally he does scientist-like things that a more seasoned pop-science writer would never do. He uses equations, for example – not just once or twice, but quite a lot. He assumes readers know what logarithms are, and how to convert between logs to different bases. Sometimes he forgets who he’s talking to, and uses words in a way that only physics graduates use them (Example: “The chance of a third helium nucleus colliding with beryllium-8 in time to make carbon-12 is therefore vanishingly slim. Hoyle’s genius was to suggest that there might be a fortuitous resonance, in the form of an excited state of carbon, which exactly matched the energy of the beryllium-8 nucleus when capturing a helium nucleus.”)

To put it in a nutshell, The Aliens Are Coming! is highbrow content in lowbrow packaging. For me, the biggest downside of this arrangement is that the author doesn’t cite his sources. The book has an unusually large number of footnotes, but they’re almost all textual asides rather than references. Miller clearly put a lot of effort into primary-source research, and I would have welcomed a few pointers to help me dig deeper into some of the topics for myself. A second “lowbrow” feature of the book is the lack of an index – but that hardly matters, because this isn’t a book for dipping into. It’s one you’re going to read from cover to cover.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  



Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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 …

Six Impossible Things - John Gribbin *****

On first handling John Gribbin's book, it's impossible not to think of Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons in Physics - both are very slim, elegant hardbacks with a numbered set of items within - yet Six Impossible Things is a far, far better book than its predecessor. Where Seven Brief Lessons uses purple prose and vagueness in what feels like a scientific taster menu, Gribbin gives us a feast of precision and clarity, with a phenomenal amount of information for such a compact space. It's a TARDIS of popular science books, and I loved it.

Like rather a lot of titles lately (notably Philip Ball's excellent Beyond Weird), what Gribbin is taking on is not the detail of quantum physics itself - although he does manage to get across its essence in two 'fits' (named after the sections of Hunting of the Snark - Gribbin includes Lewis Carroll's epic poem in his recommended reading, though it's such a shame that the superb version annotated by Martin Gardi…

Making Eden - David Beerling ****

I'll be honest up front - I found parts of Making Eden hard work to read. But the effort was more than rewarded. David Beerling makes a good case that botany is unfairly seen as the Cinderella of biology - it simply doesn't get the same attention as the animal side. I realised how true this was when I saw a diagram of a 'timeline of evolution of life on Earth' the other day. Out of about 30 entries, arguably three of them applied to plants. And yet, as Beerling makes clear, without plant life, the land would still be barren and the seas far less varied. No plants - no animals.

As someone with a very limited background in biology, I learned a lot here. The sophistication of some plant mechanisms are remarkable. Beerling dedicates a chapter, for example, to what he describes as 'gas valves', the stomata that open and close on the underside of leaves, allowing carbon dioxide in. The apparent downside is that they let moisture out - but as Beerling describes this …