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The Eerie Silence: Searching for Ourselves in the Universe Paperback – 3 Mar 2011
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In an area more given to fabulation than fact, [Paul Davies'] level-headedness is positively refreshing. If you ever start worrying about why no one is talking to us, this is the book to calm you down (David Papineau Observer)
Davies is the most engaging of writers (Clive Cookson FT)
An immensely readable investigation of the SETI enterprise (Michael Hanlon New Scientist)
A magnificent cosmic tour d'horizon of what we know, and what we might yet encounter out there, in the apparent emptiness of deep space (Christoper Hart Sunday Times)
About the Author
Paul Davies has achieved an international reputation for his ability to explain the significance of advanced scientific ideas in simple language. He is the author of some twenty books and has written and presented a number of TV and radio programmes. He has also won the prestigious Templeton Prize, the world's largest award for intellectual endeavour, and a Glaxo Science Writers' Fellowship. He is currently Professor at Arizona State University as well as the Director of BEYOND: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science.
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Do not be lulled into thinking that this is simply a round up of all the credible evidence for extra-terrestrial life we have so far uncovered. That would be a very short book indeed because, put simply...there is none
By contrast, this book contains a wide ranging analysis of the implications of our hitherto failed attempts to search for extra-terrestrial life - the 'eerie silence' of the title. Given our failure, this leads Davies to the question: 'What should we look for instead?'
And the fact is, the answers are far from simple. Most people are aware that the SETI programme is actively searching for radio signals from inter-stellar space. But, as the author (himself head of SETI's Post Detection Task Group) argues, is this really the best place to look? In a universe as vast as ours, radio signals from distant galaxies will take millions of years to reach us. Given that the Big Bang happened 13.7 billion years ago, countless numbers of advanced civilisations could have arisen and then simply disappeared in that time. If life is rare - as we are increasingly forced to accept - and the universe is both very large and very old, can we ever expect technologically advanced civilisations to exist within communicable distances of each other? The fact is, we search the radio spectrum because it is a technology we have mastered, not because it is necessarily a good place to look...
Davies then goes on to sketch out what we might look for instead. What would an advanced civilisation look like? What tell-tale footprint would it leave in the cosmos? What would it have achieved in technological terms? How would it actually communicate with us? Would it actually have any interest in doing so? Do civilisations inevitably 'do science'? Should we look closer to home - for evidence of more than one 'genesis' on Earth perhaps? (Again, the only only evidence we have points to a single one, from which all life on Earth is descended. If there had been more than one, at least we could say that the probability of life elsewhere would be greatly increased)
This is great stuff. The summation of a life of scientific, intellectual and philosophical thought and endeavour.
Finally, Davies discusses the profoundest possibility of all. That, in this unimaginably vast universe we are utterly alone. This would mean that the chances of life arising anywhere in the vastness of space and time are are vanishingly close-to but not quite zero, making life on Earth unbelievably special. However unlucky you may feel in life, the fact of our existence might be one of the most amazing pieces of good fortune it is possible to imagine. I find this thought beautifully life-affirming!
Don't get me wrong - I enjoyed the book a lot, but I felt that the argument he made was very much slanted towards that conclusion. For example, he talks of the 'eerie silence' and asks whether or not fifty years of silence is enough to decide that we're alone in the galaxy. Of course it isn't, and he concludes such (albeit grudgingly). He himself points out that given the likely timescales of putative extraterrestrial civilizations, the idea that they would use radio signals to communicate over interstellar distances is a anthocentric assumption that likely wouldn't be true. The Earth, in the early days of radio, leaked signals into the galaxy in an ever expanding shell of information - now, most of the signals that we send for a vastly more complex telecommunications infrastructure are handled via optical cables or reflected back to the earth via satellites. Despite becoming, arguably, more clever as a species, we have become almost exponentially quieter. Due to the distances involved, signal degradation and Doppler shifting, those early signals which we sent are likely indistinguishable from background noise to any civilization within our own cosmic back garden. Davis talks of the 'drunk at the lamppost', looking for his dropped keys in the circle of light, not because they're there but because the chance of finding them anywhere else is infinitesimally small. So it likely is with SETI, except the drunk isn't so much looking but waiting for the keys to call out to him.
That's not to say that I think SETI is a bad investment of time and effort - far from it - while the odds are long, the rewards would be massive. It is to say though that I think the 50 years of eerie silence is no reason to even start thinking that there is no life out there, and claims to the contrary seem to smack of the unbearable arrogance of anthocentric thinking.
Other arguments marshaled against the existence of extraterrestrial life are presented in a 'sleight of hand' manner - for example, that of the 'great filter' which is a wholly hypothetical thought exercise, the explanation of which which is concluded with the phrase 'Though Carter's argument may seem to knock the stuffing out of SETI'. If it is true, perhaps it does - but the *entire foundation* of the argument is based on the idea that we live in the last epoch of intellectual viability before the heat-death of our planet. Earth may be very typical in that respect, or it may be entirely unique. The great filter argument is no more credible than any other which generalises from our own tiny pool of experience. The argument that the scientific method is a pre-requisite of communication is fair, and comes after a very interesting discussion of astrobiology and the possibility of a second genesis on earth. After talking so long about evolution and how evolution seems like a good candidate for a cosmic imperative, he then ignores the implications of this when discussing our own intellectual evolution. He talks about how monotheism was instrumental in evolving the scientific method, and ignores the fact that evolution also works on social structures. I don't know if society evolves towards the scientific method over a long enough period of time, but neither does anyone else.
Perhaps the most important thing in this review is the fact that my comments relate to the arguments made, and not to the book itself. It's a really interesting, well structured discussion of both the state of the art in SETI and some of the factors that may contribute to an 'eerie silence'. He does not dismiss the possibility of life, and is at least fair-minded enough to acknowledge counterpoints to his own argument even if he doesn't truly give them the necessary time to develop. I would very much recommend the book to anyone interested in SETI, but I'd say first 'pair it up with a similar book from an optimist'. The nature of universal scale in both size and time means that the answer likely *won't* be found somewhere inbetween, but there's no reason to conclude from the silence that we are alone even in our own immediate neighbourhood of the galaxy.
 If life evolves, then it *evolves*.
 Generalising from a pool of one, once again
Paul Davies tells it how it is and pays tribute to the efforts and patients of those who dedicate their lives to searching for the most profound answer in the history of human enquiry.
I came away from this book profoundly satisfied, what ever you conclude the answer may be, you too will feel the same.
If you are, like me, fascinated by the vast universe and the search for life out there, this book is a real find.