In our current cultural fascination with the idea of alien beings from other worlds, most of it hokey at best and just plain wrong at worst, there is a definite need for some popular-level literature which helps to sort the rational wheat from the pseudoscience and Hollywood chaff.
Seth Shostak, Public Program Scientist at The SETI Institute in Mountain View, California -- where they conduct Project Phoenix -- has created such a book. Titled Sharing the Universe, Shostak gives a comprehensive and most readable survey of what we do (and especially do NOT) know about life beyond the planet Earth, and how we are going about searching for our fellow inhabitants of the Universe.
Whether realized or not, most of the general public gets its "education" on science, history, and foreign cultures from the films and television programs they watch.
This is why physicists such as Lawrence M. Krauss write popular books using the series Star Trek and other science fiction programs to explain why most of the "science" and technology they present is either physically impossible or unobtainable for the foreseeable future.
Many people do come away from science fictions films thinking that evil alien monsters are waiting to pounce on Earth or that starships equipped with "warp" drives will be zipping us around the Milky Way galaxy in the next few centuries. As for the latter, I do hope we are exploring the interstellar realm by the era Star Trek is set in. However, unless there is some major breakthrough in physics and technology, I do not think Scotty will be fixing the mythical dilithium crystals on the Enterprise to give us Warp 8 to Alpha Centauri any time soon.
In each chapter of Sharing the Universe, Shostak usually starts off by presenting some relevant aspect of a popular science fiction film or series and then showing why it probably would not happen that way in reality. I was pleased to see that Shostak did his homework when describing his representative science fiction. While some scientists may prefer that these forms of entertainment were not interwoven with serious science, Shostak realized that the public generally does not discriminate between what Hollywood puts on the screen and what biological evolution could actually produce on worlds circling distant suns.
For those who are concerned that Sharing the Universe is little more than knocking down bad Hollywood aliens and science, put those fears aside. Shostak gives clear and interesting explanations on the latest data we have about astrobiology in all its forms.
He starts off with our current understanding about possible life havens in our own solar system, then works his way into the galaxy with the new planets being discovered around other stars. Current thinking is that since we developed on a planet circling a sun, then other life forms may have done the same. Finding other solar systems (though so far none quite like ours) is a hopeful step in the right direction.
The next chapters explore how alien life forms, especially the intelligent ones, might be created and evolve, and their possible behaviors. Shostak focuses on the public's major fascination with aliens who want to find and interact with us. The author deftly shows how most of the aliens portrayed in our entertainment are far more mundane and human than they may first appear to be, no matter how many tentacles or other appendages they might have. Real ETI may be very different from us in almost every way. Evolution does not always role the same dice twice, especially on worlds in distant star systems.
The aliens from Hollywood and abduction reports also show just how socially egocentric humans can be, probably because we have been isolated on just one planet for most of our existence with no other intelligent species to compare ourselves to. They assume that every star-faring race in the galaxy thinks that Earth is the hottest spot to visit in the heavens, either to save humanity from its primitive ways or to knock us out of the competition for survival of the galactic fittest.
More than likely, if ETI do exist, they are completely unaware of humanity and Earth, as the Milky Way galaxy is so vast and abundant with billions of stars, planets, nebulae, and other celestial objects.
Even if they do know about us, why would they want to expend so much of the time, energy, and resources necessary to mount a long and dangerous interstellar expedition to gather information and materials from Earth? They can probably find almost anything they want in major abundance throughout the rest of our vast galaxy, much of it likely without any current inhabitants.
Of course if ETI want to find and learn about humanity through interstellar means of communication, that is another matter. Sending messages through the galaxy is a practical and inexpensive endeavor. Best of all, we can actually search for these signals right from our own planet with current technology!
The final chapters discuss how real SETI programs are conducted, what we may expect if ETI are trying to signal us, how humanity might react to the discovery, and what kind of responses we should send. Though the main focus is on Microwave (radio) SETI, other methods, such as Optical SETI (detecting laser and infrared transmission beams) are discussed. Since we do not know how ETI might communicate with each other or us, it is only prudent to utilize all the practical detection means at our disposal to ensure success.
Shostak answers the people who think that The Government or various SETI programs have already found that ETI exist and are hiding evidence of these aliens from the public to avoid a cultural shock and panic. Shostak relates the story of how one perceived detection incident with Project Phoenix in June of 1997 -- which turned out to be the signal from the SOHO solar satellite -- was unintentionally leaked to the press within twelve hours after the signal was first found. People just could not keep their mouths shut about what might have been the most important event in human history.
If a genuine ETI message had been discovered, no doubt by now human nature would have spread the word across our planet, regardless of any restriction attempts. And considering how a real first find would boost the professional and personal lives of the folks who found it, why would they want to sit on such a gold mine once its authenticity had been determined?
In summation, I highly recommend Shostak's Sharing the Universe to anyone who wants the clear and exciting scientific picture of our long search for other minds in the Cosmos. I also recommend this book for those who are familiar with the subject, as it can serve as both a refresher and a guide when someone asks about the latest UFO report or if that latest alien species on Star Trek could really exist.
My only recommendation for the next edition (and I will presume this event, as new knowledge in the field keeps growing by leaps and bounds), is the addition of more photographs and diagrams to accompany the text, especially in color.
Perhaps by the next edition of Sharing the Universe, Seth Shostak won't have to fall back on explaining why aliens probably will not want to steal Earth's water or try to stop us from destroying the rain forests. Because if the public reads this book, they will be ready to explore the real possibilities of extraterrestrial life through science, our best tool and hope if we are ever to learn the answers to all our questions about who and what is "out there".
The following are two Web sites with ordering information for Sharing the Universe:
From The SETI Institute:
Sharing the Universe, by Seth Shostak
Paperback, 216 pages
Published by Berkeley Hills Books
Publication date: January 1998
Dimensions (in inches): 0.63 x 9.01 x 5.90
entire website copyright © The SETI League, Inc.
this page last updated 28 December 2002
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