Wednesday’s Book Review: “Beyond UFOs: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Its Astonishing Implications for Our Future”

beyond-ufosBeyond UFOs: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Its Astonishing Implications for Our Future. By Jeffrey Bennett. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008. Preface, acknowledgments, photographs, bibliography, and index. ISBN: 978-0-691-13549-6, 211 pages, $26.95 hardcover with dust jacket.

While the title, Beyond UFOs: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Its Astonishing Implications for Our Future, offers a provocative tease about visitations by aliens from other worlds, this book is really about the very down to Earth efforts to learn the answer to the age-old question, “Are we alone in the universe?” As such it is a reasonable introduction to astrobiology written in an engaging and accessible style. For those without a background this will be useful, but for professionals there will be little here that is new or different. Additionally, this book is not really historical in focus; it is more of a work of popular science than anything else, although there is some discussion of change over time.

There is no doubt but that astrobiology is a fascinating, compelling, and important subject. Everyone’s eyes seem to light up when pondering the prospect of life somewhere else in the universe, and it is completely appropriate that NASA has made pursuit of this question a central part of its space science program. It may well be that while the twentieth century was the century of physics, the twenty-first century will be about biology, or in this case astrobiology. To his credit Bennett is willing to take on the tin foil hat brigade and skewer those who claim alien visitation and abduction, in the process offering a primer on discerning accepted fact and personal opinion. This is the story that Jeffrey Bennett tells in this book.

Bennett also relates the ferment elsewhere with direct applicability to NASA’s search for life beyond Earth. The research on extremophile life on Earth, at the bottom of the oceans around sea vents, within rocks, etc., all fueled reconsiderations of what this might mean for life elsewhere in the solar system. The origins and evolution of life on Earth has held powerful analog lessons for the prospects for life beyond. As Cornell University scientist Bill Nye commented about “extremophilic” life: “It’s compelling evidence for astrobiologists that the environmental limits for living things are set pretty far apart.”

The Mars meteorite of 1996 and the hoopla it stirred up also suggested that this was an avenue of great significance. When the 4.2-pound, ­potato-­sized rock (identified as ALH84001) was formed as an igneous rock about 4.5 billion years ago, Mars was much warmer and probably contained oceans hospitable to life. Then, about 15 million years ago, a large asteroid hit the red planet and jettisoned the rock into space, where it remained until it crashed into Antarctica around 11,000 BCE. Scientists presented three compelling, but not conclusive, pieces of evidence suggesting that ­fossil-­like remains of Martian microorganisms, which date back 3.6 billion years, were present in ALH84001. The findings electrified the scientific world but excited the public just as fully, and added support for an aggressive set of missions to Mars to help discover the truth of these theories. While the theory has not been accepted by most in the scientific community, it helped to enthuse many at NASA and reorient much of space science toward answering this question about life beyond.

Indeed, as Jeffrey Bennett notes, the Mars science program gained a new lease on life in no small part because of these developments. The missions to “follow the water” on Mars have transformed the planetary sciences since the last decade of the twentieth century. Similar possibilities of life, although strikingly different from popular conceptions of ET, may also exist on other bodies in the solar system. He discusses prospects on Titan, Europa, Enceladus, and other locations and finds that there are genuine signs that microorganisms may well be alive in these extreme environments.

Bennett then discusses the prospects for life beyond this solar system. With the discovery of extrasolar planets the possibilities appear limitless. More than 350 have been discovered since the first extrasolar planet around a sun-like star, 51 Pegasi B, was detected as a result of observations undertaken at the Observatoir de Genève in 1995. Examination of extrasolar objects has not yielded as yet any Earth-like planets, but scientists believe that in time it will. What might this portend for the future? Observations from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Infrared Space Telescope have been used to detect extra-solar planets, and other work continues from the ground. The possibilities are mind-bending, according to Bennett. Using advanced observation techniques, they will someday produce an image of a blue and white planet with liquid water and a breathable atmosphere. It seems inevitable. Such a discovery will certainly spur interest in closer observation, revitalizing the dream of galactic space travel.

Finally, Bennett discusses the much publicized search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) that began in 1960 at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia, when astronomer Frank Drake pointed the radio telescope at Epsilon Eridani and listened for signals that might be dispatched by a technological civilization residing nearby. He unpacks the famous Drake equation, which has so many variables that one can either prognosticate that there is only one technological civilization or that there are billions. More likely, Bennett notes that many scientists have adopted the belief that while the universe may be filled with life at the micro organic scale there may still not be an abundance of life similar to us. He’s not so sure.

While Bennett pooh-poohs the beliefs of many that Earth is routinely visited by alien intelligences—good for him—he holds himself open to the possibility that we may someday communicate with such intelligence. If they are out there—and Bennett believes they could be since the chemistry, laws of physics, etc., are the same everywhere—then they are almost certainly not visiting us. “In fact, I rather doubt that any such advanced aliens would be paying attention to us as all,” he writes, “except perhaps for monitoring us, waiting to see if we ever prove ourselves smart enough and friendly enough to deserve an invitation into their galactic club” (p. 196).

There is a pressing need for scholarly investigation of the recent history of astrobiology. This is not that book. It is, however, one of several recent popular, journalistic accounts on this very exciting aspect of space exploration. For scholarly analysis of this subject, Steven J. Dick has virtually cornered the market with three seminal books on the subject— Plurality of Worlds: The Origins of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant (Cambridge University Press, 1982), The Biological Universe: The Twentieth Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science (Cambridge University Press, 1996), and The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology (Rutgers University Press, 2004), written with James E. Strick—and I hope he writes yet another that tells the story of the recent developments in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Enjoy this work for what it is, but don’t expect more out of it than what it was intended to be by the author.

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