Alien abduction stories, the ongoing exploration of the universe, dense technical jargon about the building blocks of life and how shitty Prometheus was.
Long before Fox Mulder asserted that “the truth is out there,” physicist Enrico Fermi offered an even blunter comment about alien lifeforms: “Where is everybody?” While some may bristle at the mention of a popular sci-fi character/conspiracy theorist in the same breath as a Nobel Prize winner, such a comparison is fitting when considering Aliens, a collection of essays by prominent scientists about the search for extraterrestrial life. Edited by British theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili, the essays in this in largely fascinating book are wildly diverse, covering alien abduction stories, the ongoing exploration of the universe, dense technical jargon about the building blocks of life and how shitty Prometheus was.
In arranging these essays, Al-Khalili wisely opens with the most sensational topic about aliens (and one that would make Mulder proud): UFOs. The book is frontloaded with essays about flying saucer stories that sprang up in the mid-20th century—from the infamous incident at Roswell to individual abduction stories and their various explanations. We get a rundown of the classification system for close encounters (somebody tell Richard Dreyfuss’ mashed potato-sculpting character that there’s a fourth kind now) and their corresponding juicy details. Anil Seth even throws a curveball by hypothesizing about what bizarre forms alien consciousness may take through an exploration of one of the cleverest and most otherworldly terrestrial creatures, the octopus.
From there, Aliens leaves Earth to search our solar system and beyond for the precise conditions necessary to generate or sustain life. Despite some passing similarities to Earth, including the odd fact that its days are surprisingly close to the same duration of ours, Mars is probably ruled out. Then again, worst-case scenario, it’s still a planet populated solely by robots, and our various remote-control probes have literally just scratched the surface; we haven’t yet explored deep enough underground to rule out subterranean lifeforms. Though the extreme conditions on planets in our solar system make for some lousy options for life, the same isn’t true of several icy moons, especially a handful that orbit the gas giants of Jupiter and Saturn.
Aliens’ snappy pace—each essay runs about 10 pages on average—flags during the highly technical “Life as We Know It” section, where microbiology, chemistry and quantum mechanics take over. As mind-bending as quantum physics is (poor Schrödinger’s cat, who is also, thankfully, just fine), these sections get bogged down in statistics and grow somewhat tedious, especially when the section’s five essays are bookended by the much more lurid sci-fi depictions of aliens in both print and film. In his essay about aliens on the silver screen, Adam Rutherford points out that (narcissists that we homo sapiens are) most cinematic extraterrestrials maintain a humanoid shape. He argues that the hiding-in-plain-sight approach of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Thing is far more compelling than little grey men and the sentient planet of Solaris or the mirage-creating beings from Contact are perhaps more realistic given the fact that any aliens that might be out there likely take a form that’s beyond our comprehension.
Aliens covers a lot of ground in a relatively short page count. Each reader will likely bring a different set of interests to the table when it comes to evaluating the likelihood that we are not alone in the universe. While it may not delve too deeply into any one topic, there’s a little something here for anyone interested in the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, or at least how we imagine it to be.