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.


Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Andrew May


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 …

The Ascent of Gravity - Marcus Chown ****

Marcus Chown is one of the UK's best writers on physics and astronomy - it's excellent to see him back on what he does best. Here we discover our gradual approach to understanding the nature of gravity - the 'ascent' of the title - which, though perhaps slightly overblown in the words 'the force that explains everything' (quantum physics does quite a lot too, for example), certainly makes us aware of the importance of this weakest of fundamental forces. Chown's approach to gravity is a game of three halves, as they say, broadly covering Newton, Einstein and where we go from general relativity.
As far as the first two sections go, with the exception of the 2015 gravitational waves detection, there's not much that's actually new - if you want a popular science exploration of these aspects of the topic with more depth see this reviewer's Gravity - but no one has covered the topic with such a light touch and joie de vivre as Chown. 
Although Chown doe…