Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations Hardcover – 30 Mar 2001
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It certainly makes interesting reading for anybody interested in modern technology and the many different applications of computers. -- Gerhard R. Fischer, Charlotte County PC User Group, September. 2002
Superb Book. -- Paul Gilster, Triad Business News, July 19 2002
This fascinating book explores all the possible lines of approach to a challenge, upon whose outcome may one day depend the future of our own civilization. -- Sir Arthur C. Clarke, author of
This looks at the search for extraterrestrial
life as more than just a few eager scientists listening to
blips in the night. -- space.com, Jan 2002
From the Publisher
In Beyond Contact: A Guide to SETI and Communicating with Alien Civilizations, author Brian McConnell examines the science and technology behind the search for intelligent life in space, from the physics of inter-stellar laser and radio communication to information theory and linguistics. If you've ever wondered whether it really would be possible to communicate with other civilizations, you'll want to read this book.See all Product Description
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For example: On page 116, one of the factors mentioned as a limit to OSETI (finding laser beacons and such) is extinction--the attenuation of light due to dust in the intersteller medium. This, it is said, limits our ability to see laser beacons to "a few dozens light years" for visible wavelengths. Really?? Then how come you can go and see stars farther away than that with your naked eye? Oh, because they're brighter! Well, how bright does a laser beacon need to be? How much attentuation is there, in per cent, dB or whatever, at, say, 100 light years? How much does a beam spread out over, say, 100 light years? How much variation in the signal is there over time as a result of dust? Not a BIT of quantitative data on this stuff!
Like all other SETI enthusiasts I've seen, they also ignore another issue: As communication techniques get more advanced, they look more and more like random noise. Our millions of chattering cell phones and internet hosts will almost certainly be undetectable to anyone outside the earth environment, let alone the solar system: Those transmissions have no directionality, they are low power precisely because they are efficient and advanced, and their advanced modulation causes them to look like white noise. Consider a 300 bps modem, with its old-fashioned tone signaling; then listen to a 56k modem, which, except when it's hooking up, sounds almost like rushing steam. It's hard to escape the idea that we will only pick up radio from ET if he intentionally beams it at us, a doubtful proposition unless he's within 60 light years, as he has no way to know of OUR radio transmissions.
A final word about copy editing: I've yet to read a book with absolutely no errors, but at least they could get three-letter words like "its" right. There are other serious errors, such as missing words, the ubiquitous "different than," and other less glaring mistakes. If they can't do better than that, perhaps they should just record audio tapes.
All in all, about a third of the way through, I decided that other books must surely be able to better satisfy my curiosity on this subject.
I like the idea of this book, but the execution left a bit to be desired.
The first two sections ("Are We Alone?" and "Getting a Dial Tone") do a passably good job of introducing some of the basics of interstellar communication, ably introducing both the fundamentals of radio and optical technologies and the unique challenges of communicating a signal (any signal; the details of the signal to be sent are reserved for Part III) across interstellar distances.
Problems with the first two sections are:
(1) inconsistent readability: the author seems not to have found a consistent tone for the book, and wanders between wide-eyed pie-in-the-sky speculation and bone-dry technical detail;
(2) organizational flaws: the author routinely discusses a concept or entity throughout early chapters without a decent introduction or explanation, only to treat the subject in question at length (with the proper explanatory introduction) later in the text -- the discussion of the SETI@home distributed computing project is particularly guilty of this;
(3) lack of investigative reporting: almost every piece of information in these sections could have come out of a textbook or a web search, and it's clear that the author hasn't bothered to interview the movers and shakers in the SETI community and find out anything much about the "story behind the story," which might have made for some interesting reading;
(4) bad editing: there is a typo every few pages, which is a minor beef but in the age of spell-checkers hardly excusable.
Nonetheless, if you've never read a "Scientific American" article about SETI, the first two sections of the book would be educational. If you have any exposure to SETI prior to picking up the book, chances are that you won't learn very much (except possibly about optical SETI/CETI, which relies on the production and/or detection of laser light aimed at a specific star system, and which is grossly undertreated in the literature).
The third section ("Communicating with Other Worlds") treats the specifics of the author's ideas about what sort of message could be sent by us (or, by extension, might be received by us from others). The author makes an analogy between modular messages encoded in binary code and genes encoded by DNA, and sets up one potential system that might be used to send a complex message from star A to star B. This section is definitely the weakest in the book, for the following reasons.
(1) It treats at punishingly great length only one possible system of a presumably great many for communicating with alien intelligences, glossing over other approaches in favor of a detailed treatment of the author's pet approach. While I don't have a specific complaint with the approach described, I will say that as a working biologist, I found the author's biologically motivated analogies ("igenes," "binary DNA") strained and in some cases laughable. It probably makes the material "sexier" in the computer-science and SETI literature, but as a life scientist I mostly winced a lot.
(2) In part because of this, the author doesn't put his approach in any kind of context -- e.g., how else might we do it?
(3) It's way too long and inappropriately detailed: a great deal of theory of computation stuff that's not at all unique to SETI or the challenge of communicating with a non-human intelligence ends up in this section, and I don't think that benefits the reader more than just saying, "We'll send computer programs using the benefit of knowledge reaped from the maturing fields of cryptography and computer science and our impressive knowledge of the physical universe," and focusing more on reasons why any approach like this has shortcomings and might not work regardless of how clever you are.
All that having been said, this is an OK book. I wouldn't recommend that it be the only thing that you read about SETI, nor would I recommend that you read it cover-to-cover (unless you have troubles with insomnia), but if you're an avid reader of the SETI literature, it certainly can't hurt to pick this one up.
This book describes in detail the "history" of SETI (Search for Extraterrestial Intelligence), its motivations for desiring contact with extraterrestials, theories on how likely extraterrestials do exist and if they indeed do exist, how likely they would be able to communicate back to "earthlings." There are also chapters devoted to how our technology would enable us to communicate, starting with radio and laser communication, signal processing, teleporting computer bits, using symbols, pictures, and abstract language as a form of communication, and how to go about translating any form of communication we would receive from an extraterrestial.
A fascinating book about a fascinating idea and while I don't expect "ET" to show up on my doorstep any time soon, at least now I know enough that if he does, I'll have some idea of how best to communicate with him.
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