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Extraterrestrials - Wade Roush ***

Before opening this book I had the distinctly unnerving wish that I would find it full of blank pages - because this is the 'essential knowledge' series, and our knowledge of extraterrestrials is, well, non-existent (sorry Mr Mulder). To be fair though, inside we get the next best thing.

Wade Roush gives a readable, compact history of SETI (the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence), plus attempts to communicate outwards and a touch of information on potentially inhabitable exoplanets. We also, inevitably, get that magnificent piece of speculation raised to the power of n, the Drake equation which supposedly gives us a feel for the potential range of numbers of planets in the galaxy inhabited by intelligent life (at least we know the range starts at 1) and much puzzling over the old Fermi paradox of why there is no evidence of intelligent life out there.

It's this last part that gets just a touch tedious - because it is all navel gazing speculation, it really can never go anywhere but round in circles, and it does rather a lot. Roush seems convinced that there should be interstellar travel going on all the time out there - although he briefly acknowledges that it may never be possible because of the vast distances involved, he then pretty much ignores that acknowledgement of what seems by far the most likely answer to Fermi's old question of where everyone is - too far away.

Because of the speculative parts (which everything except the history of SETI pretty much has to be), I struggled to enjoy this book - but the SETI parts provide a good background to what's been done to date. And, of course, if you enjoy some heavy duty speculation outside of fiction, the rest will engage you too.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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