- Hardcover: 240 pages
- Publisher: Picador (May 9, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1250109639
- ISBN-13: 978-1250109637
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.9 x 216.9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 19 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #148,295 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Aliens: The World's Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life
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"Superb....An incisive and fun collection packed with mind-expanding ideas about our universe and ourselves."―Kirkus Reviews
“A brilliantly sharp collection.”―The Observer (London)
“Jim Al-Khalili has gathered a useful cross-section of the brightest minds in space science. . . . [Aliens] goes far beyond the what and the where and the when of extraterrestrial-hunting to the biggest conundrum of all: why bother? . . . This book is always lucid and sometimes unexpectedly beautiful.” ―The Times (London)
“Ideal for keen alien-fanciers.” ―The Daily Mail (London)
"Fascinating...There’s a little something here for anyone interested in the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, or at least how we imagine it to be.”―Spectrum Culture
"A wide array of easily digestible, information-packed essays from researchers writing on various aspects of the search for extraterrestrial life....An excellent primer on various concepts and aspects of potential alien life, and the consequences of such an earth-shattering discovery."―Publishers Weekly
“Thought-provoking… Must-reading for star-watchers, visionary anthropologists, and everyone wondering if and when the ETs will finally pay us a visit.”―Booklist
“Much like Louisa Preston’s Goldilocks and the Water Bears, this book succeeds in looking much deeper than the typical earthbound definition of life….[Aliens] may even be appreciated by curious sf fans and casual readers.”―Library Journal
About the Author
JIM AL-KHALILI is a quantum physicist, author, and broadcaster based at the University of Surrey in England. He received his Ph.D. in theoretical nuclear physics in 1989 and has published more than a hundred research papers on the subject. He is a well-known presenter of TV and radio in Britain, and his many popular science books have been translated into twenty-six languages. He is a recipient of the Royal Society of London’s Michael Faraday Prize and the Institute of Physics Kelvin Medal. In 2016 he received the inaugural Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication. He lives in Southsea in Hampshire with his wife, Julie.
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Top customer reviews
Some topics are the basics of the field — how life arose on earth, what makes an environment likely friendly to life, and how to detect the presence of life remotely. Others are a bit more imaginative— why do people believe in flying saucers, how alien might alien life really be, and might we be more likely to detect artificial than biological life.
The authors are both optimists and pessimists, and there are some hard realists in there as well. The broader topic is a great one to let scientists free to speculate about. While we do have facts to rely upon for answering some core questions concerning evolution on earth and the prevalence of planets around other stars, we are all educated guessers on so many others — How did life first appear on earth? What characterizes a planet’s ability to host life or its origin? What is the likelihood of life evolving something recognizable to us as intelligence? How do we really know life when we see it? Would we really even recognize “intelligence” if we encountered it?
Here are some highlights from my own reading.
Anil Seth’s chapter, “What Octopus Minds Can Tell Us about Alien Consciousness” — Seth asked the question, what is it like to be an octopus (taking off on Thomas Nagel’s famous philosophical paper, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”). What is the first “person” experience of life like for an octopus? Seth suggests that consciousness could be very different from our own first person experience of life. For an octopus, an intelligent creature with semi-autonomous limbs, a more distributed nervous system, and a less extensive communication system uniting the parts of its nervous system, conscious life could be unimaginably different from our own — “alien”. It could have a sense of self that was inherently collective, for example. Thought experiments like Seth’s make us realize how truly alien alien life could be — types of life and types of intelligence that are so different from ours that we cannot possibly know what to look for in our search.
Maybe not surprisingly, the chapters on the topic I know least about — the chemical origins of life — taught me the most dramatic lessons. Chemistry, as Andrea Sella says in her chapter on “Randomness vs. Complexity”, is not random. Life didn’t originate in the happenstance of collisions or interactions between various elements or molecules, like a jar of rattling marbles. There are biases built into chemistry itself. Likewise, in “Electric Origins in Deep Sea Vents”, Nick Lane describes how deep sea vents favor the interactions we see in living membranes.
We would certainly like to think that the origin of life is “easy”. And there is pretty good evidence that it happened quickly on Earth. That doesn’t mean it is “easy” though, in the sense that it will likely happen anywhere else, even under what we think are favorable conditions.
The difficulty we have in even talking reasonably about these topics is our sample size of one. One instance of the origin of life, one instance of its evolution, and one instance of the kind of technological intelligence we are looking for out there. But this is what opens the field to speculation. It’s refreshing to see scientists shake off the shackles a bit and tell us what they think.