January 22, 2020

Review: Signatures of Life by Edward Ashpole

Out in July!

Where are they? That’s the central question that Enrico Fermi asked in what has now become known as the Fermi Paradox. For the past half century, scientists have attempted to answer that question, scouring the skies for searches for extraterrestrial intelligence.

This week’s review, Signatures of Life: Science Searches the Universe by science writer Edward Ashpole out from Prometheus Books next month is an interesting take on the current state and future of SETI. The book presents a unique hybrid of science and conjecture as the author looks at SETI methods and search tactics and presents some interesting and refreshingly new ideas.

The author rightly points out that our attitudes and approaches to SETI have been and continue to be shaped by our current culture and our view of the universe. He also notes that while we’ve only been sending radio transmissions into space for the past century, we’ve been announcing our presence via our spectra with such products of life as ozone and chlorophyll for hundreds of millions of years. An infant civilization like ourselves may soon have the capability to detect these signatures of life in our lifetimes; surely any advanced neighbors would know that something interesting is afoot here by now?

Perhaps the aliens are waiting for us to do something really interesting. It’s the typical science fiction scenario; humans invent warp drive, and the Vulcans show up. Signatures of Life doesn’t back away from the fringes of the field, whether it be UFOs or science fiction. The book gives a hardnosed look at alien visitation reports and pop culture depictions of alien life. Are we more likely to meet “them” or their robotic representatives? Are there alien artifacts strewn about our solar system, like in 2001: A Space Odyssey? While such claims would demand the most severe sort of evidence, it’s definitely worth watching out for as we explore the solar neighborhood.

Perhaps their Von Neumann machines are on the way; or maybe they’re already here, silently drifting in our solar system. Of course, there is no evidence for this, and one has to wonder why, if this was the case, that they haven’t already taken care of a fledging civilization like ours. Some UFO enthusiasts even believe that an alien spacecraft dubbed the “Black Knight” orbits the Earth, an idea we’d only heard of recently.

But again, these would all demand rigorous proof. While much of Signatures of Life deals with ideas that are fringe to mainstream science, we also found that, much like Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck’s historical account of UFO sightings Wonders in the Sky, we couldn’t put it down. It’s true that interest or the very mention of study into Ufology is deemed as a career ender for many professional scientists. Like many serious studies into the field of UFOs, Signatures of Life posits that while a vast number of UFO sightings are spurious or outright hoaxes, a handful remain unexplained and merit careful scrutiny. Which, of course, begs the question; why don’t amateur astronomers ever see UFO’s?

Perhaps therein is a valuable service that the amateur astronomy community can perform. We’re not beholden to the purse-strings of major scientific institutions; most of the work done by observers and those who blog about astronomy is strictly pro-bono. As works like Signatures of Life call for careful scrutiny of better documented cases, maybe the amateur community can rise to the challenge.

Do read Signatures of Life for some thought-provoking and original ideas in the field of SETI. Whether it’s the result of spectral analysis of a distant exoplanet, or they land on the White House lawn with ray guns ablaze, we hope that the question of “Are We Alone?” is answered in our lifetime!

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