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Beyond UFOs: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Its Astonishing Implications for Our Future With a New afterword by the author Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In cogent and entertaining language, astrophysicist and popular writer Bennett (On the Cosmic Horizon) explains that the determining factor in whether we can locate intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is whether such a civilization—and our own—can continue long enough to develop the highly sophisticated technology needed for interstellar travel. If humans are going to meet that challenge, Bennett argues, we must solve global warming, debilitating disease, terrorism, poverty, and war. We must use our compassion to teach all people to respect all others, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or gender. This political message is couched in fascinating and completely accessible science. Bennett does a wonderful job of explaining the conditions necessary for simple life, how we might discern its existence and where we should be looking. He then does the same thing for intelligent life. While he is fair to those who believe life is incredibly rare, he makes a compelling case that life is likely to be abundant. He also predicts that we will gather incontrovertible proof of intelligent life in the universe within the next 20 to 30 years. 8 color, 30 b&w illus. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Winner of the 2010 US Review of Books's Eric Hoffer Book Award in Culture
Winner of the 2009 Silver Nautilus Book Awards in Cosmology/New Science
Finalist for the 2008 Eugene M. Emme Astronautical Literature Award, American Astronautical Society
"In cogent and entertaining language, astrophysicist and popular writer Bennett explains that the determining factor in whether we can locate intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is whether such a civilization--and our own--can continue long enough to develop the highly sophisticated technology needed for interstellar travel...Bennett does a wonderful job of explaining the conditions necessary for simple life, how we might discern its existence and where we should be looking. He then does the same thing for intelligent life. While he is fair to those who believe life is incredibly rare, he makes a compelling case that life is likely to be abundant."--Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"The old adage 'don't judge a book by its cover' (or, in this case, its title) certainly applies here. While one might expect a book of science fiction, Bennett presents this awe-inspiring topic in a scientifically accurate but personal way. I would recommend it to anyone interested in reading a creative summary of the status of the search for life elsewhere in the universe and would hope that it might provide a starting point to inspire the next generation of astronomers and astrobiologists."--Lisa Jardine-Wright, Times Higher Education
"[Jeffrey Bennett] has taken a break from the treadmill of updating his textbook and has written a popular book instead, bringing the rest of us up to date on our extraordinary new and expanded universe--and on who else might live in it . . . Beyond UFOs is crammed with neat analogies, startling imagery and mind-blowing illustrations of astronomical concepts. If you want to understand the universe and our place in it, you will not find a better primer. The first diagram alone--which shows how Earth's 10,000-kilometre span of real estate fits into a supercluster of galaxies a billion trillion kilometers across--bear a good 10 minutes of study. This truth is astonishing, and humbling--and Beyond UFOs is a great place to find it."--Michael Brooks, New Scientist
"Planet by planet, moon by moon, [Beyond UFOs] explores the possibility of life elsewhere in this solar system. It then speculates about other solar systems in our galaxy where, according to the prevailing scientific view, simple life almost surely exists and intelligent life is plausible. For the most part, Bennett's search for extraterrestrial life adds up to a very satisfying package. . . . At its core, this book delivers a combination that is hard to beat: solid yet highly speculative science plus accessible prose that add up to an out-of-this-world reading experience."--Fred Bortz, Seattle Times
"Bennett walks us through the daunting calculations that lead to the conclusion that the existence of life elsewhere is not only possible, but highly likely. But as we wonder where else life exists and what forms it might take, scientists are forced back to more fundamental questions. What is the nature of life itself? Will we know it if we see it?...Bennett offers a host of lessons here not only about global warming and environmental degradation, but our place in the universe as well."--Matthew Battles, The Boston Globe
"This exploration of potential alien life is a timely work, just as the steadily increasing discoveries of extra-solar planets makes the possibility of finding alien life more plausible. . . . [Beyond UFOs] is a fully rounded examination of the subject, accessible to all. I guarantee that after reading this book you will be watching space probe results that much more closely. And maybe, you will be watching the skies too!"--Steve Ringwood, Astronomy Now
"This is a highly readable and enjoyable book that centers on astrobiology--a discipline that melds astronomy, biology, geology--and a little bit of luck--to explore the prospect of life on other worlds. . . . Bennett is an excellent writer, taking the reader on an exploration quest to find alien life, and how difficult solar system sleuthing can be, such as on Mars, Jupiter's Europa, or on Saturn's Titan. You'll also find an excellent treatment on current activities surrounding the on-going search for extraterrestrial intelligence."--The Coalition for Space Exploration
"Particularly enjoyable is the down-to-earth writing; Bennett, an astrophysicist, author, and educator, tells the reader exactly how he feels about various topics (even the role of God in the scheme of things). Readers may not agree with everything he says, but he does offer food for thought."--B.R. Parker, Choice
"Beyond UFOs gives a good impression from the moment you first take it into your hands. It is attractively produced, well written, and very thoroughly proofread. It's an interesting and challenging complement to focused research, and will be particularly enjoyed by anyone who has an appetite for broad science tinged with morals."--Elizabeth Griffin, The Observatory
"Beyond UFOs is a rich, slow, and rewarding read. Rich because it is full of some of the most interesting current interdisciplinary science regarding planets and life that you can find, blending astronomy, geology, history, and astrobiology in a single narrative. Slow because each page is so full of interesting content that you don't want to skim. Rewarding because Bennett is simply a fantastic writer and presenter, making the read thoroughly enjoyable. No science expertise required."--Jennifer Wiseman, Books & Culture
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Top Customer Reviews
Jeffrey Bennett is a good writer. I am certain this cannot be said of many astrobiologists or physicists. His writing style makes this an easy read. As with any good non-fiction book I learned more than I expected to. Jeffrey does a great job of explaining what it means to answer the question "are we alone?" To answer that question we must determine not only how to define life, but also how life begins. It all comes down to identifying planets that have the potential to host life.
Like most novice space enthusiasts I want to know the answers without the discipline of years of study. Of course, yes, I know this is silly; that it takes years of study to truly understand what we seek. Jeffrey Bennett does a great job of providing a window into what he has learned; what it truly means to be on a quest to answer what is perhaps our most difficult question as a human race.
If you want to go beyond the stereotypical UFO hunter - learn what it means to answer the question "are we alone" - then I recommend you start with this book. You may not get the answers you want, or maybe you will, but what you do get is what it means to be searching for those answers.
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.
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.