Book Review: The Eerie Silence

The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence ( Kindle Edition ) is an examination of the state of SETI, which is the search for Alien Life by “listening” for telltale radio signals using radio telescopes around the world.

The book’s author, Paul Davies, is no late night caller into Coast To Coast – he’s an internationally acclaimed physicist, cosmologist, and astrobiologist at Arizona State University.

Dr. Davie’s premise is that we’re going about our search all wrong, partially because we’re looking for life which is too much like us and our technology, circa 2010.

Actually, he goes even further than that: He lays out, in a very clear and accessible manner, how he believes that there’s either lots of other life in the universe, or, well, none. Nothing in between.

That’s actually pretty scary, especially the first bit. The prospect of mankind be utterly and completely alone is pretty daunting. I’m not sure how people would really feel if it was a fact that there was nothing else intelligent out there. Nothing. Just us.

The case for this is pretty interesting. Besides the whole premise of how hard it is for life to to exist at all, there’s the whole problem of the kind of intelligent, technologically advanced life we’re looking for:

  • There is no evidence evolution selects for intelligence. Before you decide that’s completely wrong headed, consider this: Dinosaurs were the dominant life form on earth for something like 400 million years. Think about it: 400 million years without cities, writing, stone working, metallurgy, electronics, you name it. And, from all indications, incredibly successful, until an asteroid put an end to that.
  • Even if evolution selected for intelligence and we just happen to be the first of the line, there’s no evidence evolution selects for science, or technology.

Davies goes on to remind us that if we actually think Aliens are listening to us you need to do a little math:

  • We’ve only been emitting any sort of radio (much less TV) emissions for what? 100 years? Maybe? So that means that to “hear” us, those aliens would have to be within 100-light years to hear us.
  • The number of stars with earthlike planets is within 100 light-years is…none so far. None. (There are stars with planets, but they’re gas giants, or too close to their stars, or too far, or…).
  • It’s more likely that there may be life further away, but to those folks, we’re still in the middle ages, or, worse yet, we’re still dinosaurs.
  • Finally, Davies points out that over time, our radio and TV emissions have gone down, not up. Instead, we use things like DirectTV, which don’t radiate into space, or cable, which doesn’t radiate at all.

All of these statements presumably apply to Alien civilizations too, so the chances of us “hearing” one with SETI become even more remote.

I’m not going to spoil the book for you, but all is not lost. Davie’s point is not to say we are alone, but to say that we need to look in a whole different way. He talks a lot about how life can be completely different from what we expect – in fact you don’t need to look any further than the black smokers in our own oceans to find pretty strange life forms. Given that, he says we need to change what we’re looking for if we have any chance of succeeding.

I’m not saying that there is or isn’t life out there, but I do think this book does a great job of re-examining the question, and reminding us just what a miracle our own existence probably is :-).

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