In The Eerie Silence, physicist and astrobiologist Paul Davies explores the current state of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
Today’s SETI program focuses on scanning the skies for signs of alien life using large radio telescopes. Despite 50 years of effort and regularly improving technology, the search has so far proven unsuccessful. Davies’ book analyzes why this might be, and proposes alternate techniques that may be more appropriate for future SETI programs.
One of the themes of the book boils down to the fact that almost every facet of SETI is at least in part guesswork. It’s hard to search for alien life when no one has ever discovered any such life to analyze. We don’t know that the life forms we’re searching for even exist, let alone where they live, or what technology (if any) they possess. Davies expends a substantial amount of effort addressing these concerns.
Major points of discussion include:
- Should we expect advanced intergalactic beings to have similar technology to ours? What else could we look for?
- For that matter, what is life, and would extraterrestrial species even be identifiable as life forms as we know them?
- What are the odds of life existing elsewhere in the universe in the first place?
- If SETI succeeds some day, what do we do about it? What are the implications?
The Eerie Silence is part math, part science, and part philosophy. The book, as with the entire field of study, has no answers to any of the hard questions. Even so, I left feeling enlightened, at least with regard to the complexity of the problems and the diversity of possible solutions. The media often glosses over these types of sticky details, but Davies addresses them head on. Is life really likely to be abundant in the galaxy or isn’t it? Does all life eventually lead to higher intelligence? The answers aren’t clear, and for some genuinely interesting reasons. I didn’t agree with every assertion the author made, but such is the case with conjecture.
Paul Davies manages to distill complex topics down to a level which is both readable and accessible, if a bit dry at times. The book is well worth a read for those with an interest in life, science, and the universe. The content is thought provoking to say the least, and may even lead you to think a little differently about our own place in the cosmos.