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Book Review:
Sommes-nous seuls dans l'univers?
edited by Fayard (ISBN 2-213-60554-8)

reviewed by Elisabeth Piotelat
Regional Coordinator, The SETI League Inc.
(league.seti @

Take four astronomers: Jean Heidmann, Alfred Vidal-Madjar, Nicolas Prantzos and Hubert Reeves.

Take three journalists, asking them the question, "Are we alone in the Universe?"

This gives birth to a very good book "Sommes-nous seuls dans l'univers?" edited by Fayard (ISBN 2-213-60554-8).

Jean Heidmann is the only one who really promotes SETI. The three other use the Fermi Paradox and the cosmic calendar (imagine that the big-bang happened on 1st January 1999) to argue that there is probably no intelligent life out there (but that they would like to find one and that they encourage SETI listening). They think space travel will be available to us within the next 3 centuries.

I was a bit surprised with this "use" of the Fermi Paradox. Personally, I use it to show that it's better to look for signals than to wait for flying saucers, since the distances in space are too great.

I met Jean Heidmann just once, so I can't say that I know him. In his previous books, he appears as "a professor", always teaching "serious" things. In this interview he speaks about great projects (radio telescope on the Moon, solar lens) with enthusiasm. He also mentions Dyson spheres and the search by Jun Jugaku for infrared signals using the IRAS satellite. He also speaks about Nanšay, and the need of private investments to maintain the radio telescope. The observatory could be closed within five years.

Alfred Vidal-Madjar is known for a book about the discovering of new planets. He is rather pessimistics but I was really impressed by his explanations and the way he builds pictures to give an idea of the size of the universe.

Nicolas Prantzos works in nuclear astrophysics. He seems to ignore optical SETI projects. He refers to Robert Forward's idea about LASER propulsion. When the journalist asks "can't we use this LASER emission to send a signal to some civilisations?" he answers "Radio waves are better. They are less energetic. There is no absorption by the gas and dust of our Galaxy. That's the reason why the people working for SETI use radio telescopes." He also explains that there are few biologists in the SETI search but a lot of physicists and astronomers. For him, when you think how complicated life is, it's easy to think that we are alone.

Hubert Reeves answers more "philosophical" questions about life, Earth, and so on.

I don't know if the book will be translated into English, or if some similar book already exists. The idea of interviewing four astronomers is rather original, and nothing had been written about SETI in France since 1992.

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