April 26, 2019

Beyond UFO’s by Jeffrey Bennett.

The topic of extra-terrestrial life is a controversial one. Indeed, it’s only been in the last decade or so that the subject has moved from the realm of science fiction into that of mainstream science. In Beyond UFOs: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Its astonishing Implications for Our Future, (Princeton Press), author Jeffery Bennett covers a wide swath of science, leading up to our present day understanding of the emerging field of exobiology.

The book reads like and could perhaps be considered as a primer on the subject, and the author has in fact written several text books on the topic. I know that some universities are even considering offering degrees in the field. The title itself seems a little sensationalist; but hey, if it draws em’ in, so be it. Even Astronomy magazine (with titles like: Gamma rays of Doom!) and we here at Astroguyz have to vie for the People magazine crowd and their two second, airport kiosk attention span. As Fat Albert says; “If you’re not careful, you might learn something before we’re done!”

The text itself covers some very familiar ground as to why life might be rather common in the cosmos. Recent discoveries on Mars and Titan are noted, although with the Phoenix mission, some data will already be dated. The author also presents and breaks down the Drake Equation, arriving at very different conclusions than we did recently here at Astroguyz. The author seems to be somewhat more optimistic about variables such as the number of worlds in our solar system that are habitable, and the length of time that a technical civilization might exist. The book can also be counted in the ranks (Astroguyz among them!) of those who take a stab against the “rare Earth” hypothesis. The author rightly points out that Earth itself is a world of variable and sometimes cataclysmic conditions; once life took hold, its been tough to wipe us out. A wonderful short story by the late Arthur C. Clarke illustrated this best; in Report on Planet Three, Martian astronomers give a long laundry list of why Earth must be uninhabitable. (The basic gist: its too un-Mars like!)

The author also sidebars on some very interesting topics; anyone that doubts global warming exists should look at the warning posed by our sister world, Venus. Certainly, the search for extraterrestrial life blends fields as desperate as astronomy, biology, climatology, even psychology. When a separate alien biosphere is discovered, the study of biology alone will double two-fold. The author seems very optimistic that alien life, either as microbes on Mars or a message from the stars, will be discovered in our lifetime. We here at Astroguyz would place our bets at the safe 50/50 mark… although I would say that the microbe bit is far more likely. I would hope that someone is nearby to talk to, although space (and time) is big. I sometimes wonder if everyone is listening, but no one is transmitting! Sure, we put those old broadcasts of The Twilight Zone out there, (I wonder if they caught “To Serve Man” yet?) But the trend seems to be towards cable and fiber optics. Maybe a signature of an adolescent civilization is to wastefully bleed off radio transmissions, then become “quiet” as our maturity and efficiency increases. Whatever the cause, the final “where is everybody?” question posed by the final chapter of the book is a fascinating one. This deceptively simple question breaks down into three possible answers;

1. We are alone: either we are the only technical civilization in the cosmos, or we are so rare that nobody is currently nearby in the cosmic neighborhood.

2. Civilizations are common, but thus far, no one has colonized the galaxy: Perhaps most alien races aren’t all that interested in space travel or communication…

3. There is a galaxy spanning civilization, but we haven’t discovered (or haven’t been discovered by) them yet: this is the Prime Directive hypothesis ala Star Trek; maybe they communicate via quantum tunneling, and radio telescopes are like throwing smoke signals at them. The possibilities are endless, but fun to think about.

Beyond UFOs’ points out that our current search strategies are token, at the very best. Certainly, I’ll run SETI@home on my laptop til’ the day my hard drive dies, but  the strategy employed has several limitations; for example, the signals analyzed are collected from the Arecibo array, which is generally pointed at faint, extragalactic sources. Not prime alien hunting territory. A long term, dedicated, systematic search of nearby star systems, such as the Allen Telescope Array , is required.

Finally, the author points out a few key facets about life here on Earth; that once conditions were right, life seemed to arise here immediately, geologically speaking. Also, discovery of life, even microbial, elsewhere in the solar system would cause a huge paradigm shift in the Drake Equation. I know that in recent episode of Astronomy Cast Dr. Pamela Gay expressed concern that we may not be able to absorb contact with a vastly advanced civilization; certainly, the history of culture contact here on Earth didn’t bode well for the backward, which in this case, would be us. Still, perhaps such contact could jump start us into a new era, ala Childhood’s End . Ah, the sci-fi analogies are abundant!

Read Beyond UFO’s as a good overview of where we currently stand and how we got there. Exobiology is swiftly evolving field; I myself wouldn’t mind a degree! (Will a day ever come when someone high up states; “I don’t care if its two AM, get the exobiologist on the line! The Rigelian ambassador is waiting!”) Also, check out the authors’ cool website.  Will the text already be dated? Certainly, but perhaps not by aliens landing, ray guns ablaze on the White House lawn (yet!)

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