In Jim Al-Khalili's Aliens, Scientists Discuss the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Books Reviews Jim Al-Khalili
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In Jim Al-Khalili's <i>Aliens</i>, Scientists Discuss the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Whither the space beasts, and where are they hiding?

Jim Al-Khalili’s latest book, Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, is a delightful, punchy anthology about the possibility of, well, alien life. And while its writing can be dry, the volume makes up for it in fascinating substance.

1aliensbookcover.jpgThe short version of the book is that aliens are extremely likely. A few of the contributing writers disagree, but the evidence is that life is real, rad and probably everywhere. The universe is vast, so it’s almost inevitable that Earth is not The Only Special Planet. The essays in Aliens are reactions to that fact, and in particular, to Enrico Fermi’s question: “Where is everybody?”

Al-Khalili has assembled a team of high-yield thinkers and scientists to discuss the question. If this sounds like armchair theorizing, it is—and you’ll be surprised how much can rationally be guessed from an armchair. (Quite a bit, it turns out.)

Aliens also boasts side-trips down the most abstruse origin stories. For example, one scholar writes that due to the statistical unlikelihood of proteins assembling into a cell, early RNA was probably a quantum computer. Another points out that since life only developed once on Earth, there’s less of a reason to think it appeared anywhere else. The scientist adds, however, that if we could find sufficiently weird life—and that is what it is called, “Weird Life”—then we would have evidence that Earth’s evolution created life more than once. If life evolved spontaneously on Earth two times, that would increase the likelihood for alien life by a huge margin.

The book’s writers are all quality: Martin Rees, Andrea Sella, Adam Rutherford, Paul Davies, Ian Stewart and more. While there are no standouts, there are also no lightweights. Everybody carries his or her weight, and the science is as limpid as you could want. This project was designed as carefully as a NASA voyage, with writers referencing one another’s chapters. Essay complements essay and theory is weighed against theory like plates of overlapping armor. The result is that Aliens reads in the tradition of Victorian popular science; it’s confident enough in its audience to treat the reader like a grown-up.

Somewhere on a distant world where huge, intelligent insects are the apex species, there probably exists a team of scientist ladybugs compiling a book titled Is There Non-Insect Life Out There in Space? And there is probably a giant-sized warrior ant doing my job, writing a review of that book for the Bug World version of Paste. Wherever you are, my colleague, I salute you. For life dwells in these pages.