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:  
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 …