Double Reading Rainbow 3!
Single Reading Rainbow!
Eerie Silence - Paul Davies
Ah, March: the days got longer, the weather was lovely and all manner of plant and animal life were out there desperately trying to get laid. Oh also: aliens. This March saw the launch of the Science Channel’s month-long “Are We Alone?” extravaganza, celebrating the quest to find extraterrestrial life. This could not be more up my alien-lovin’ brethren’s alley – if I could choose one event to take place in my lifetime, it would be contact with aliens. Even if aliens were hostile, I’d rather die by their hands (or tentacles?! Or thought-daggers?!) and know they exist than just die a boring, old Earth-bound death. In honour of this awesome celebration, here’s a book review for extraterrestrial intelligence, as well as two other alien-y recommendations.
- Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is on Netflix instant. Watch it. It’s the most imaginative, brilliant documentary TV show ever made.
- Download SETI @ home here (http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/). While your computer is in screensaver mode, the program analyzes a tiny percent of the radio telescope data SETI receives. You will be one of millions of science enthusiasts (3 million at the last count) who have donated computer power to advancing human knowledge. SETI is not the only project you can support – scientists are using similar programs to research disease, predict climates and solve outstanding mathematical problems, amongst many other awesome things.
This is the book you should read about project SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Davies is a Carl Sagan disciple, a cosmologist and writer who can boil down complex scientific and mathematical concepts into a kernel of literary wonder. If you don’t believe me, consider that he currently runs a foundation named the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, which is basically a place where incredibly bright people push philosophical questions as far as they can with the scientific method. It’s like heaven, but real, and not boring.
The publication of this book marked the 50-year anniversary of SETI, an institution that Davies has been deeply involved with for most of its lifespan. But the great thing about Eerie Silence is that it’s not a love letter – it’s a wake-up call. The key word in the subtitle is “renewing.” Davies is a very harsh critic, laying out all the problems with the current incarnation of this momentous search, often with quite a lot of humour.
For example, he asks the reader to consider the best way for humankind to respond to an alien transmission. In his opinion, allowing a political or religious leader to do the honours is a scenario is “too horrible to contemplate.” I would have to agree: can you imagine how badly some of our world leaders would bungle this historic moment? Joe Biden would probably accidentally cause a hostile takeover! Obama, on the other hand, would likely answer as graciously as he responded to that supporter who signed at him a few weeks ago, but he’d probably be accused of not even being born on Earth. Practical considerations are a huge part of Eerie Silence, and Davies addresses them thoughtfully and thoroughly.
The biggest criticism of SETI in Eerie Silence is that it has succumbed to the human lack of imagination. Our assumption that intelligent life elsewhere in our galaxy would be just chilling out to radio waves the way we do is ludicrous. Even worse is our assumption that these lifeforms would even be biological. I mean, what thinking person can’t relate this speech by Brother Cavil in Battlestar Galactica?
I don't want to be human! I want to see gamma rays! I want to hear X-rays! And I want to - I want to smell dark matter! Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can't even express these things properly because I have to - I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid limiting spoken language! But I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws! And feel the wind of a supernova flowing over me! I'm a machine! And I can know much more! I can experience so much more. But I'm trapped in this absurd body!
Who is to say that an advanced civilization hasn’t already figured out how to become such a cybernetic being? In part, that’s what the Beyond Center is for – a place to open our minds to what aliens might be like. Davies asks us to “jettison as much mental baggage as possible” and look at the skies in a completely different way. There are galactic inconsistencies scattered across the heavens: any one of them could be evidence for extraterrestrial life.
Perhaps the most poignant point in the book deals not with examining at the skies but examining ourselves. The human species is not very impressive. Oh sure, there’s this miniscule percentage of geniuses we produce, but think of the rich irony that these titans of science are often vilified for trifling political or religious reasons, despite the fact that their accusers still directly benefit from the breakthroughs they’ve made. Think of the fact that evolution, an elegant, revolutionary theory that has been around for 150 years, is still considered to be controversial. Think of our ever-growing numbers and the planet’s increasingly ominous warnings that she will kick our species’ ass if she so chooses. I mean, seriously, how amazing is it that we are so short-sighted that we neither confront the damage we’re doing to Earth nor do we invest in space colonization so we’re covered when she inevitably pulls the plug on us? A planet is not a playtoy, people! Never forget that we’re just sitting on this freakin’ rock whirling around in the middle of space! Every moment is borrowed.
Davies makes this point by playing devil’s advocate – discussing the possibility that no other intelligent civilizations exist elsewhere in the universe. He puts our inadequacy much more eloquently and chillingly than I can: “It would be a tragedy of literally cosmic proportions if we succeeded in annihilating the one truly intelligent species in the entire universe.”
Come on, humans. Let’s be a comedy not a tragedy, pretty please?