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If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens ... WHERE IS EVERYBODY?: Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life Hardcover – October 4, 2002
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From Library Journal
H. James Birx, Canisius Coll., Buffalo, NY
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Scientific American
Editors of Scientific American
- Publisher : Copernicus; 2002nd edition (October 4, 2002)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 288 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0387955011
- ISBN-13 : 978-0387955018
- Item Weight : 2.93 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.14 x 0.69 x 9.21 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,094,284 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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This book is a wonderfully informative introduction to the wide range of thinking about the subject of the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Stephen Webb uses the so-called Fermi Paradox as a launchpad for the discussion.
The Fermi Paradox is this: The numbers, along with the sound principle that there is nothing obviously special about Earth and its immediate environs, suggest that it's highly unlikely that we are the only forms of life in the Galaxy, and certainly not in the Universe! However, there remains the one incontrovertible fact in the whole discussion: there is simply no evidence for anyone else.
The question is: "Why?"
Webb considers 50 proposed answers to this question. In my estimation, he gives most of them as fair a shake as they deserve (if not fairer), and this is one of the most impressive aspects of the book. In a subject like this, where there is very little concrete evidence to restrain the sort of wild speculation and pontification of which people are so fond, it is very easy to get dogmatic one way or the other and to dismiss others' ideas without fair trial.
Webb, by contrast, proves extremely judicious, balanced, and careful in his analysis of the various proposed solutions to the Fermi Paradox. Obviously his word is not final, but he doesn't pretend that it is. He takes care to remind the reader of the speculative nature of any proposed solution to the problem, including his own.
As a beginner to thinking about extraterrestrial life, I found this book extremely useful as a guide to the options (so to speak) that are on the table right now. He classifies the solutions of the Fermi Paradox as being of three types:
1) Aliens are, or have been, here, but for one reason or another we haven't noticed it yet.
2) Aliens are out there, but for one reason or another they either cannot or will not communicate with us.
3) There are no (intelligent) aliens.
Under each of these headings fall a number of proposed answers to Fermi's question "If there are aliens, then where are they?" Some of them are delightfully thought-provoking, such as the idea that our Solar System is a sort of Galactic Zoo; others are a bit bizarre, such as the notion that we live in a simulation or "planetarium" built by aliens deliberately to deceive us into believing we're alone; and some are frightening, such as the idea that extraterrestrials haven't shown up yet simply because they were long ago annihilated by strange creatures of their own devising, called "berserkers", or the idea that too many alien civilizations have been killed off by a supernova, a gamma-ray burster, or some such catastrophe.
Webb's own (tentative) conclusion is that the solution of the Fermi paradox is that there are no intelligent aliens. He makes a clever analogy with the Sieve of Eratosthenes (used to find prime numbers by process of elimination) to whittle down the number of civilizations that might be trying to interact with us to essentially zero. Again, however, Webb is not dogmatic about this view; he acknowledges that the jury is still very much out on the question. However, he makes a fairly strong argument that the obstacles in the way of the flowering of intelligent life are too formidable to presume, as many do, that they have been overcome very often at all, even in a Universe as vast as this.
That said, I would not bet so much as a dollar of my own money that we are alone. I do not believe Webb has done full justice either to the number of stars in the Universe, to the Mediocrity Principle, or to the difficulties of interstellar communication. That last one really sticks in my craw. Too often, I hear arguments like this: "Sure, space travel is difficult. But it's not impossible, especially for alien civilizations that are surely far in advance of our own!" It took us 35 billion dollars, ten years, and millions of hours of labor from the brightest minds on the planet - just to get to the Moon! (Once we had accumulated the necessary knowledge over the centuries!) That is literally child's play compared with the sort of travel that alien visitation would require. As far as space probes go, we humans - in all our glory - have managed to send a paltry 4 objects out of the solar system, and as far as I know we have been unable to maintain communication with them.
As I say, it's easy (too easy!) to counter this by simply imagining "advanced" alien civilizations who have somehow worked out all the nitty gritty details that we still struggle with. All I want to say (and I am no expert at this point) is that, if there is such a thing as an unsolvable problem, efficient and worthwhile interstellar travel might be it. (Of course, if this is the case, then there may as well be no aliens at all....)
What about communication, via electromagnetic waves or lasers or what-not? Here again, I think Webb's conclusion does no justice to the sheer difficulty of interacting in this way on the scales involved. The distances are so large, the targets are so small, and the possible frequencies are so many that I think it's no cause for surprise or concern that we've found nothing yet. In fact, I think the biggest worry is that, regardless of whether or not aliens are "out there", the task is pretty much equally hopeless in each case!
Also, I'd like to point out that, even with all the resources at our disposal, we have located fewer than 500 confirmed exoplanets to this date (although recently enormous progress has been made by the Kepler mission). I think this shows that, even if you are an advanced civilization, you can't just pick up a telescope, point it at the sky, and find planets - let alone find whatever life may be on those planets!
Too often "alien" is taken as synonymous with "superhuman", and there is just no real reason to think the two are interchangeable.
In any case, buy Stephen Webb's book. Read it. Then read it again! You won't regret it!
4 / 5
I do have two complaints, however: (1) the book is somewhat repetitive, and I frequently got the sense that the same solution was offered multiple times for the sole purpose of reaching a total of 50 solutions; (2) portions of the book are poorly structured and needlessly use scientific concepts which are not adequately explained in the book. This is most notable in the sections of the book that discuss the biochemistry of life on earth.
Bottom line, I really enjoyed "Where Is Everybody?" and I warmly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.
Top reviews from other countries
It argues for and against each case and is a thought provoking and highly enjoyable read.
It explores the Fermi Paradox in great depth with the respect that the subject matter deserves.
The author draws his own conclusions at the end, which I now share ( I didn't before ). A real testament to the power of books !
There is no better broadly based book on the subject.