29 March 2018 Reviews

The Impact of Discovering Life Beyond Earth

The editor of this book summarises the situation perfectly in his opening paragraph: “The search for life in the Universe, once the domain of science fiction, is now a robust research program with a well-defined roadmap, from studying the extremes of life on Earth to exploring the possible niches for life in the Solar System and discovering thousands of planets far beyond it”. The book itself is a compilation of contributions from almost two dozen academics with interests in astrobiology, SETI and associated topics.

According to the cover blurb, the volume provides a platform for “distinguished philosophers, theologians, anthropologists, historians and scientists [to] discuss the big questions about how the discovery of extraterrestrial life, whether intelligent or microbial, would impact society”. The 21 chapters are grouped under four main headings: ‘motivations and approaches’; ‘transcending anthropocentrism’; ‘philosophical, theological and moral impact’; and ‘practical considerations; how should society prepare for discovery – and non-discovery?’. It is clear from this – and the heavily-referenced text, footnotes and relative lack of illustrations - that this book is no lightweight read.

As might be expected from a multi-author work, there is a mixture of styles and some variability in the accessibility of presentation. The subheadings are a good guide: at one end we have the readily transparent ‘why extraterrestrials will not communicate’ and ‘what is intelligence?’, while at the other we find ‘exploring new ways to address N=1’ and ‘normative aspiration in light of cosmic evolution’. That said, you just have to love an essay that begins “One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1951 science fiction thriller, The Day the Earth Stood Still”.

Ultimately, this is the sort of book that you don’t have to read from cover to cover: if you don’t like one author’s style or content, just skip to the next chapter. There is plenty here to interest most readers and much to stimulate the old grey matter. I particularly like the religious questions in ‘SETI in non-Western [e.g. Buddhist] perspective’ and ‘Would you baptize an extraterrestrial?’. It is also good that, given the variety of its contributions, it has a decent index.

Mark Williamson, Space Technology Consultant

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