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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