Book review: Confessions of an Alien Hunter

Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist's Search for Extraterrestrial IntelligenceConfessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by Seth Shostak
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a fun read and my biggest complaint is that it came out in 2009 (just as the Kepler space observatory launched) and hasn’t been updated, so there’s a lot of near-future discussion about systems that have since come online.

Conversely, we still haven’t detected extraterrestrial intelligence since then, either. :P

Some might be put off by Seth Shostak’s breezy writing style, peppered with puns and humor, but I felt he always pulled back just in time to let the hard science and sober speculation take over. And if you’ve seen Shostak on TV–having more than a casual interest in astronomy, aliens or some combination thereof makes it likely, as he’s not just SETI’s senior astronomer, he’s also their main go-to for interacting with the media–then the light tone is not surprising. He is passionate about his work, but he is a wonderfully droll person. I suppose that may help when you’re willing to offer straightforward commentary on episodes of Ancient Aliens.

Despite being nearly a decade old at the time of this review, the book remains a thorough examination of SETI’s history, its goals, and its then-current operations. Shostak brackets the nuts and bolts of SETI with his own background leading up to joining the group, and offers tidbits from his work as an advisor on films like Contact and the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (he helped them make the scientists sound more like real people and less like jargonbots).

A lot of the book centers around the inevitable questions arising from SETI–what would SETI do if a signal was confirmed? How might the public react? What would aliens look like? How long will it take to scan the visible galaxy? Is it all just a goofy waste of time?

People who favor the “waste of time” side may not be moved by Shostak’s arguments, but most others are likely to come away with an appreciation of SETI’s work, and perhaps even a sense of hope in the continuing search for signs of intelligent life somewhere out in space.

Recommended. (But an updated version would be spiffy.)

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Total 86% eclipse of the heart sun

Today there was a solar eclipse, where the moon passes in front of the sun, blotting it out and making things darker (or just plain dark, depending on where you are). Back in the good old days people ran around in terror because they thought the world was ending.

That still happened today but it’s because Trump is president, not the eclipse.

At 86% totality, the eclipse over the Vancouver area was both neat and disappointing. The disappointing part is that even with only 14% of sunlight getting through, it was still bright enough (on a clear day) to only be a little dimmer than normal, similar to what you might see on a gloomy cloud-covered day.

On the neat side, the dimness did have a surreal “this ain’t right” quality to it, and shadows were even darker in relation. Trees were casting weird crescent-shaped shadows as the moon traversed across the sun’s path. I forgot to take pictures. Also, the temperature got noticeably cooler–not cold, but more pronounced than just steeping from the sunshine and into the shade would be.

Inevitably you see people do dumb things. As I headed downtown on the SkyTrain one guy wearing glasses with clip-on sunglass lenses (that did not appear to be special protective lenses) kept looking out and up at the sun, squinting and shielding his eyes with a hand. At one point he stopped and rubbed both eyes a good bit. That’s because you are damaging your sight, you dum-dum! When the rear-facing seat at the end of the train became free, he shifted to that so he could continue to stare at the sun. I seriously think he did damage to his vision. How can people be so utterly stupid about this? There was information about safety precautions all over the place.

Speaking of idiots, guess who else looked directly up at the sun?

It was still a spiffy, science-y event, though it has to take second place to the one I witnessed as a 15-year old in Duncan in 1979. That one was a total eclipse and having the day go from complete daylight to night in moments was very unsettling (but cool). This eclipse, though not total, still comes in ahead of the Bonnie Tyler song, though.

Book review: The Eerie Silence

The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien IntelligenceThe Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence by Paul Davies
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Paul Davies, the chair of SETI’s Post-Detection Science and Technology Taskgroup, wrote The Eerie Silence in 2010, a short time after the Kepler space telescope launched. Back then a handful of exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) had been discovered. Since then Kepler alone has confirmed over 2,300 exoplanets and estimates for the observable universe go as high as 5.3 trillion.

That’s a lot of planets.

And yet seven years later, the eerie silence Davies wrote about persists. You might think that over 50 years of observation by SETI failing to yield any tangible results would be disheartening and indeed, Davies does admit it can be a little depressing when you focus solely on the lack of any clear signal that we are not alone in the universe. But he remains hopeful that life here is not a one-time fluke among the billions of star systems. That hope is tempered by his adherence to the scientific method, of observation and testing, with minimal speculation.

It is that speculation, though, that forms the heart of the book. Davies presents comprehensive scenarios on how other planets might support life, what that life might be like, how alien races might communicate with us–or if they would even bother. He takes a dim view on fictional portrayals of aliens as malevolent beings looking to wipe us out and constantly warns against falling into the trap of anthropocentric thought. H notes that we might not even recognize aliens because they could exist in a state we can’t comprehend.

Davies also spends time covering how SETI and others would handle the world-changing confirmation of other intelligent life (he doesn’t put much stock in politicians or government handling it well).

In all, this is a wonderfully detailed and engaging look into the possibility of life beyond Earth. Davies keeps coming up with unique angles on how to approach looking for signs of communication–whether intentional or incidental, on how other intelligent beings might act and evolve, and why he is still passionate about continuing the search for other intelligent species beyond the confines of our solar system.

Highly recommended.

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