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.


Paperback:  

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


Review by Andrew May

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Artificial Intelligence - Melanie Mitchell *****

As Melanie Mitchell makes plain, humans have limitations in their visual abilities, typified by optical illusions, but artificial intelligence (AI) struggles at a much deeper level with recognising what's going on in images. Similarly in some ways, the visual appearance of this book misleads. It's worryingly fat and bears the ascetic light blue cover of the Pelican series, which since my childhood have been markers of books that were worthy but have rarely been readable. This, however, is an excellent book, giving a clear picture of how many AI systems go about their business and the huge problems designers of such systems face.

Not only does Mitchell explain the main approaches clearly, her account is readable and engaging. I read a lot of popular science books, and it's rare that I keep wanting to go back to one when I'm not scheduled to be reading it - this is one of those rare examples.

We discover how AI researchers have achieved the apparently remarkable abiliti…

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 …

Colin Stuart - Four Way Interview

Colin Stuart is an astronomy journalist, author and science communicator. He has written fourteen science books to date, which have been translated into nineteen languages, including 13 Journeys Through Space and Time: Christmas Lectures From the Royal Institution and The Universe in Bite-sized Chunks both published by Michael O’Mara Books. He also has written for the Guardian, the European Space Agency and New Scientist and has spoken on Sky News, BBC News and Radio 5 Live. He is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and even has an asteroid named after him. His latest title is Rebel Star: our quest to solve the great mysteries of the Sun.

Why science? 

For me the stories that you can tell with modern science rival the most imaginative leaps in fiction. The secret, invisible kingdoms of bacteria and sub-atomic particles. The logic defying realms of black holes and Big Bangs. That excites me more than Hogwarts or Mordor. The universe is an amazing place and we’ve only just scratche…