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Book Review:
After Contact
by Dr. Albert A. Harrison
(New York: Plenum, 1997, ISBN 0-306-45621-4)

reviewed by Melvin A. Lewis
(mlewis387 @

Recent discoveries of extra-solar planets and possible (though disputed) indications of fossilized life on meteorites from Mars, along with strong hints of liquid water under the ice on Europa, shifts the odds in favor of likelihood of life elsewhere. But what about intelligent life?

Written by a SETI League member and professor of psychology, After Contact is a book that essentially explains what to expect and what to do in the minutes, hours, days and even years after an ET signal is received. Prof. Al Harrison details the anticipated reactions by the scientific community, government agencies, the clergy, and John Q. Public. He spends some time covering people's views on the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence, and the value of searching. Harrison outlines how historical events show us how we might react to the detection of a signal.

Of special interest to SETI League members, is an entire chapter devoted to microwave observation, defining the search space, recognizing a hit, and understanding the limitations of a radio search. Elsewhere in his fascinating book, Harrison discusses messaging, transmission control and dealing with the time delay.

There is much non-sensational discussion on the very nature of possible ET life forms and our conceivable reactions to discovery of civilizations "out there". He approaches this topic from the perspectives of anthropology, political science, psychology, and sociology.

The book, in spite of the title, is not a sequel to the movie starring Jody Foster as Dr. Arroway. Nor is it a technical manual on how to set up a listening post. Rather, it provides insight and guidance on cultural issues, the meaning (in this context) of the term communication, and what constitutes intelligence, perception, and consciousness. There is a chapter on false alarms, but it sets the record straight about UFOs and abductions, not signal processing.

Harrison further speculates (and rightly so) on the human capacity to even discern a message from an advanced civilization. We might even ignore it as being background noise, it turns out. This could be a problem with a spread spectrum signal for example. He also suggests that the ETs might live at a much different time rate, and the information in their messages would be beamed at perplexingly slow or blindingly fast rates. He also points out that, while we are convinced that we are numero uno, communications wise - here on earth, we cannot expect to hold that position in the galaxy.

In this reviewer's opinion, Harrison is all too brief in his suggestions for building support for SETI; nonetheless, this is an excellent and optimistic book for the serious SETI enthusiast. His careful and thorough treatment of the topic, along with 25 small font pages of references make it an authoritative work, well worth the $29 price (at 363 pages, hardcover, Plenum Press).

Mr. Lewis is a senior staff Electronics Engineer at Lockheed Martin, Yonkers, NY, and a member of the SETI League. He teaches fields and waves as an adjunct member of the faculty, at Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Teaneck, NJ.

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