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I don’t review many books about science, but every so often some popular science book finds its way onto my desk. This one, Why Aren’t They Here? The Question of Life on Other Worlds by Surendra Verma was reviewed in Vector 257, Autumn 2008.

why aren't they hereLet’s begin with a little context. A light year is something like 5,878,625,373,183 miles. In other words, if I were to drive at a steady 60 miles an hour, it would take me, non-stop, over 1,118 years to cover one light year. Our galaxy is approximately 100,000 light years across. Even if we were capable of travelling at the speed of light, that’s 100,000 years just to make the one-way trip across one average-sized galaxy. By comparison, human civilisation is about 3,000 years old, and technological civilization younger still. If our very first manned space ship had set out for the nearest star at one-tenth of the speed of light, it would still only be about half way there. If you want an answer to Fermi’s Paradox, it could simply be that no-one’s had time to get here yet.

On the other hand, it’s now uncontroversial to assume that some sign of life will be found on Mars, and there are a couple of moons around Jupiter and Saturn that are also looking promising. There is, almost certainly, life of some sort out there. Whether there is intelligent life, what it’s like, whether Hollywood make-up artists have got it right, these are all questions that none of us can answer.

There are other issues surrounding life on other worlds. Although the ancients were confident that other worlds would have plants and animals just like earth, by the time of the Reformation, with Copernicus and Galileo transforming the way we saw our solar system, this was a theological minefield. If people on other worlds knew Christ, that destroyed any notion of the uniqueness of the Christian revelation; but if they did not, could they be without sin. The whole idea of life on other planets was such a threat to the very fabric of the Church that it saw Giordano Bruno burned at the stake in 1600. And it is still enough of an issue for the Vatican to make a pronouncement on this subject as recently as May 2008.

We have a universe so big we cannot comprehend it, made of matter so mysterious we can’t understand it, in which there may or may not be an unknown number of planets, upon which there may or may not be life, though we have no idea what form it might take or if it would be intelligent or even if we would be able to recognise the intelligence, and it can still damn your immortal soul. No wonder we’re fascinated by the subject.

To be fair, Australian science journalist Surendra Verma doesn’t touch on the theological implications of life on other worlds in this entertaining little book, but he covers just about everything else. There’s a brisk trot through the history of science, from Aristotle onwards (with a preference for the idiosyncratic: more space is devoted to Descartes’ vortices than Newton’s gravity); and of science fiction (equally idiosyncratic: Kepler, Voltaire, Orson Welles, Fred Hoyle, Stanislaw Lem, Carl Sagan).

Next up is a breakneck canter through the science of life and competing theories about how life might arise and whether the seeds of life might come from space. (Honestly, in this company Hoyle and Wickramasinghe seem quite sensible.) Then it’s on to planets, whether Pluto counts, how we discover them, what makes them hospitable to life. All the competing theories about whether or not there is life out there are played off against each other, all at the same hectic pace (no hypothesis receives more than a couple of pages of attention). There are chapters on seeking messages from space, and sending messages to space, before Verma wraps up with a series of questions about what would happen if we ever did make contact with ET.

Verma is thorough, and draws in ideas from around the globe and from the very latest research, but this is popular journalism. If you know anything about any of the subjects covered here, you’ll learn nothing new (and you may well be irked by his breezy approach). For those who don’t know, however, this is a clear, accessible and wide-ranging introduction to an extraordinarily fascinating subject.