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:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Review by Andrew May

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 …

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …