Skip to main content

Aliens – Jim Al-Khalili (ed.) ***

This book is a couple of years old now, but I found a heavily discounted copy in my local branch of The Works (other remaindered bookshops are available - Ed.). It’s the kind of ‘impulse-buy’ book The Works specialises in, with an eyecatching cover that’s as close to the Alien movie franchise as you can get without violating copyright, and a strapline –‘the truth is in here’ – that no X-Files fan will be able to resist. If you flip through the book (I mean literally flip through, holding it in your right hand and flicking the pages so you just see the margins whizzing past), you’re treated to a great little animation of an alien landing on Earth in a flying saucer, taking a quick selfie, and then heading off back into space.

When they get the book home, though, will buyers who snapped the book up in The Works be pleased with their purchase? That depends on their expectations, which the packaging does its best to befuddle right from the start. The cover is clearly targeted at the UFO/sci-fi market, while the small print at the bottom – ‘edited by Jim Al-Khalili’ – suggests more serious scientific content. The fact is it’s a multi-contributor anthology, with something for readers in all camps – though I suspect none of them will be totally satisfied with the result.

There are 19 contributions in all, with a rather quirky distribution of subject-matter. There are five on what might be called the ‘philosophy’ of alien life – theoretical speculations within the framework of mainstream science – plus two on ‘ufology’ and two on the portrayal of aliens in science fiction. Then there are five that discuss – in one way or another – the nature of life here on Earth, and two dealing with planetary science within the Solar System. That only leaves three pieces – the last three in the book – that actually talk about scientifically conducted searches for life elsewhere in the galaxy.

I’ve given the book a 3-star rating, and it’s difficult for a work of this type to get more than that. One reason is that the pieces are so short (about ten pages each) that the contributors spend most of their allocation explaining the basics of their subject, rather than its more exciting or challenging aspects. A second reason is that while several of the pieces are 4 or 5-star material, they’re counterbalanced by an equal number of 1 or 2-star pieces. I won’t single out any of the latter, but it’s easy enough to identify the book’s highlights: those final three pieces – by Sara Seager, Giovanna Tinetti and Seth Shostak – on the practical science of searching for aliens.

Having said that, some of the other contributors manage to find insightful things to say on the ‘woollier’ aspects of the subject, such as Martin Rees on philosophy (‘even if intelligence were widespread in the cosmos, we may only ever recognise a small and atypical fraction of it; some brains may package reality in a fashion that we can’t conceive’), Ian Stewart on sci-fi (‘science-fictional aliens are primarily driven by narrative imperative, with occasional gestures towards scientific realism’) and Chris French on UFOs (‘plausible counter-explanations, based upon well-established psychological principles, exist for the various categories of close encounter’).

While it’s not the best book I’ve ever read on the subject, it’s thought-provoking enough – and easily worth the low price I paid for it.



Review by Andrew May


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…