We exist in a society entirely built around science, engineering and technology and the gifts it has brought, yet with increasing complexity it has become commensurately “closed box;” we are more reliant on it than at any point in history, yet where an earlier generation could create a primitive radio receiver from common objects the inner workings of even a simple modern tablet device are so incomprehensible that they may as well be of alien origin.
Introducing the Essential Knowledge Series produced by the MIT Press, over fifty volumes covering topics from carbon capture to crowdsourcing and recycling to robots, Professor Bruce Tidor is conscious of the challenge of accessing “foundational knowledge that informs a principled understanding of the world,” of crafting a resource both reputable and reliable.
One of the less immediately applicable but nevertheless fundamental concerns of human existence is the focus of Wade Roush’s Extraterrestrials, a comprehensive and engaging overview of the history, progress, developments and current state of understanding of a question simple to ask but difficult to answer, even now: are we alone in the universe?
Echoing the wisdom of Sir Arthur C Clarke in his preface, Roush affirms the idea that we exist between two extreme possibilities, that either we do have company or we are the sole intelligent species in existence, and that either answer would have profound implications, but while it is only within the last hundred years of radio astronomy and probes to the other planets we have been able to quantify evidence of any form, the once heretical question of life on other worlds has been around since antiquity.
Well informed and personally interested in his subject, Roush is articulate in his explanations of the fields of extremophiles, exobiology and exoplanets, the tally of which in the past decades has risen to over four thousand, specific data which along with other research in astrophysics has provided estimates for the first variables in the Drake equation whose terms estimate the prevalence of life in the cosmos, those elusive extraterrestrials.
A collaborative endeavour in which some names shine brighter but many contributors are acknowledged by Roush, the Drake equation is a guide rather than a solution where every variable hides another set of questions: can dolphins be considered to be of sufficient intelligence to change the number of key species found on Earth – and so included in the tally for our solar system – from one to two? The repercussions of the interpretation are huge.
Roush’s conversational tone easy to follow, he explains concepts clearly as the field broadens in different directions but remains aware of the shortcomings of the approaches currently taken, limited by funding and fundamental science, that currently we are able to search for life or the indicators of such as we understand life to be, and only with optical and radio telescopes looking for presumably intentional signals in a band of frequencies limited by our planetary atmosphere.
The Fermi paradox explored at length, the conundrum which asks why if there is other life out there we cannot find it, Roush presents a plethora of explanations which emphasise that the answer cannot simply be taken to be that we are indeed alone but rather that we have only begun a long and complicated search, the equivalent of dipping a glass of water into an ocean and concluding because we did not catch a fish on our first effort that there are none anywhere.
From gravitational waves to the anomaly of ‘Oumuamua, everything we learn tells us more, and behind the misleading and inappropriate cover – flying saucers and alien artifacts are swiftly dismissed as unsupported by evidence – as a digest of the sum of knowledge and research it is impossible to adequately review Extraterrestrials and do it justice other than to say that it justifies its promise as a distillation of essential knowledge and is additionally an excellent and enjoyable read.
Extraterrestrials and the rest of the Essential Knowledge Series are available from the MIT Press