Skip to main content

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out that the paradox is far more acute now than it was when Fermi formulated it, back in 1950. Based on a better understanding of galactic evolution, we know something no one suspected in those days – that most habitable planets are going to be billions of years older than the Earth. We’ve also discovered that life began to develop on Earth almost as soon as the planet reached the right temperature to support it. So there are stronger reasons than ever for supposing that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’. Yet, even with high-tech astronomical methods that were undreamed of in 1950, we still haven’t found a scrap of evidence for extraterrestrial civilisations.

After defining the problem, the bulk of the book is devoted to a detailed review of the many hypotheses that have been put forward to explain Fermi’s paradox. Some of them are fairly hackneyed, such as the ‘zoo hypothesis’ popular in science fiction, and various takes on the ‘rare Earth hypothesis’ – that there’s something intrinsically unique about our planet and/or our species (including, of course, the Bible-style ‘special creation hypothesis’). More thought-provoking are the ‘transcension hypothesis’ – that intelligent species evolve towards an energy-efficient post-biological form that is impossible for us to detect – and the ‘simulation hypothesis’, that the physical universe is an illusion, and we’re actually living in a computer simulation (amusingly illustrated in the book with a Dilbert cartoon).

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg – Cirkovic’s list goes on and on. I can’t help mentioning a few more (without even trying to explain them) just because I love the names he gives them: ‘Interstellar Containment’, ‘Thoughtfood Exhaustion’, ‘The Gigayear of Living Dangerously’, ‘Introvert Big Brother’ and ‘The Paranoid Style in Galactic Politics’ (if I was a sci-fi writer, those titles would keep me in business for several years). To bring some order to the chaos he follows the discussion with a (highly subjective) scorecard – giving his highest rating, A minus, to a variant of the rare-Earth hypothesis called ‘Gaia Window’ (for what it’s worth, this reviewer’s favourite, the transcension hypothesis, gets a respectable B minus).

There’s one little fact I’ve been holding back to the end. Cirkovic is a professional philosopher of science, and like all philosophers he’s extremely precise and meticulous in the way he uses language (a less charitable person would say he’s pedantic). That means it’s not the lightest of reads – although it’s not overly academic, either, as you can see from the phrases quoted in the previous paragraph. If you’ve already read a few books about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and you’re looking for something a little deeper, then this would be a great book for you. On the other hand, if you’re new to the subject, there are probably better places to start, such as The Aliens are Coming.

Hardback:  


Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…