Friday, March 19, 2010

Book Review: The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies

Now here’s a book that needed to be written: The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence/Are We Alone in the Universe? by noted astrophysicist Paul Davies addresses the hard fact that after 50 years of searching the heavens for a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence, absolutely nothing has been heard. Davies’ thesis is now is a good time to take a step back and reexamine the assumptions and craft new approaches.

I’ve been a big proponent of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project for years. I do my part by dutifully running the SETI screen saver on my various computers to process radio telescope data packets distributed to thousands of disciples around the world. I watch the beautiful display every day as it performs Fast Fourier Transforms (FFTs) and hope I’ll be the one to make the big discovery. At the end of each day as I shut off the lights to my lab, the SETI program continues to churn away, faithfully, without question. I smile to myself knowing I’m doing a small thing to help move humanity forward in a very profound way.

Davies provides a penetrating analysis of the assumptions that underlie SETI and continues by concluding that the lack of a signal after 50 years of listening has several explanations. One is that life here on Earth might be so improbable that our planet is the only one hosting life. Or if life is common, then intelligence might be so rare that humans are the only such occurrence. Or it could be science itself, rather than life or intelligence, is unique to Earth. Or it could be that extraterrestrial signals could be everywhere, but unrecognizable by us. Or the eerie silence could be due to the inability of all past technological civilizations to survive their own technology.

My own view is that our human perception of the world may just be so Earth-centric, so specific to our evolutionary path that it simply differs in innumerable ways from the perceptions of other civilizations across the void. Our collection of senses may be too limited to ever be able to perceive the realities of the universe (think dark energy), but this is not to say another alien race can do any better. Each form of life may be predisposed to exist in its own realm and never be able to interact with any other life. That could be a sad reality, but I’ve prepared myself for that possibility for some time now.

Davies offer an optimistic voice by devoting pages to what will happen if a signal is received and how we should respond. We might as well be prepared, right? In the meantime, I plan to continue to run my SETI screen saver and prepare for the day when I see the welcome message on my computer screen – “Signal detected, please call your local SETI official.”

1 comment:

  1. Dear Daniel, i've been running the seti screen saver for over a year, and I was happy to read your review of this book. I just ordered it and look forward to it. Do more reviews!

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