In search of aliens

If there is life on other worlds, what is it like? A definitive guide to understanding what may be out there.

Alien Universe: Extraterrestrial Life in Our Minds and in the Cosmos
Don Lincoln, Johns Hopkins University Press (2013), RRP $44.99

Almost from the moment human beings worked out that the night sky was not just an elaborate light show but contained other worlds among the stars, we have wondered whether we are alone in the universe.

This book comes close to being the definitive guide to where we are in the search for extraterrestrials, from our image of what they may be like to the science of how and where they might exist.

Author Don Lincoln is a senior scientist at Fermilab, the US government laboratory dedicated to high-energy physics. Fittingly, it takes its name from Enrico Fermi, the particle physicist who gave us the Fermi Paradox, which asks why, if it is probable the universe has myriad planets similar to our own, no advanced civilisation has arisen with the technology to make contact across light years of space.

The first part of the book looks at aliens in popular culture and our collective imagination, and how the evolution from “little green men” to the now near-universal image of the inverted teardrop head came about.

The second explores the science of extra-terrestrial life and what form it may take, be it single-cell organisms, some form of blue moss or advanced civilisations. While Lincoln is careful never to be hyperbolic, he does make some predictions about “first contact”. He believes the odds are that any alien will be similar to humans in being carbon-based and using oxygen in respiration. They are unlikely to be plants but could be photosynthetic animals, he surmises. But he reminds us of pioneering geneticist J.B.S. Haldane’s assessment that any extraterrestrial will not only be weirder than we imagine but may well be weirder than we can imagine.

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