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Alien Universe: Extraterrestrial Life in Our Minds and in the Cosmos Hardcover – Sep 9 2013


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 194 pages
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press (Sept. 9 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1421410729
  • ISBN-13: 978-1421410722
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 16.2 x 1.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 431 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #521,611 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)


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Amazon.com: 26 reviews
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Partial Triumph Oct. 27 2013
By Kevin L. Nenstiel - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Voltaire famously wrote: "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him." Modern society, increasingly without religion, could say the same about extraterrestrials. We need something to fill their role, and if they won't present themselves, we'll invent them. Fermilab physicist and science popularizer Don Lincoln investigates what aliens mean, and what science actually supports. He accomplishes some goals better than others.

Lincoln divides his investigation into two prongs. The first, and longer, section discusses how extraterrestrial life, as a concept, permeates popular culture. Beginning with Renaissance discoveries that forced freethinking cognoscenti to question humanity's, and Earth's, presumed uniqueness, Lincoln progresses through popular hoaxes, science fiction, and pseudoscientific ufology to describe alien life's cultural and psychological arc.

Lincoln's second section addresses what Aliens (spelled thus, signifying technology and intelligence) likely will resemble. Lincoln unpacks latest scientific analysis of life's capacity to survive even hostile environments, and what current chemistry tells us about stable, abundant physical components. Will Aliens be humanoid, air-breathers, or even animals? Lincoln's answers may astound even hardened science fiction fans.

Unfortunately, Lincoln's second angle will probably touch more readers, more deeply, than his first. A research physicist himself, Lincoln revels in scientific details, not only the latest discoveries and incontrovertible proofs, but thought experiments for what we could discover next. When he discourses on what might make plants intelligent, or how Aliens might survive oxygen-poor environments, his glee shines through, like a kid playing in the mud.

The first section lacks this undisguised glee. Though he runs over 100 pages, Lincoln never gets beneath surface readings of science fiction and pseudoscience. It takes little to say that 1950s UFO movies reflect Cold War anxiety, or that George Adamski's beatific Aliens clearly replicate angel mythology. Lincoln simply name-drops these interpretations, and walks away. He doesn't so much explore Aliens as catalog nearly two centuries of references.

These themes deserve better explication. Aliens' cultural role seethes with unexplored potential. Is there any correlation between Aliens' transition from mongrelizing enemy in "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers," to banal annoying neighbors in "Men in Black," and the growing acceptance of American multiculturalism? Maybe. What about the changing role of military violence across the "Star Trek" franchise? Lincoln just doesn't say.

He says plenty, though, about current hypotheses and new discoveries. Lincoln's breakdown of probable extraterrestrial science runs only eighty-five pages, yet his compact, rich style and sly humor resemble great prior science popularizers, like Isaac Asimov or Carl Sagan. He lovingly unpacks not only what we know, but how our knowledge has changed, and how prior assumptions have proved unsustainable. Lincoln may change your view of our universe.

A research physicist himself, Lincoln seems more comfortable with hard answers, or at least reliable data. Aliens' culture role demands a Claude Levi-Strauss or Meaghan Morris, willing to dissect obvious answers to spotlight unasked questions. Aliens plainly serve moral roles in contemporary culture, permitting us to externalize aspects of ourselves that deserve scrutiny. Lincoln correctly writes: "What we think [Aliens] look like will tell us more about us than them."

Lincoln's brief, frequently exciting book makes a worthy prolegomenon to his topic. Its contrast between scientific insight and cultural paradigm will certainly amaze beginners on the topic. I just wish he went further. If he'd only dedicated matching vigor to his pop culture critique that he used on his science, he'd have an ironclad future classic.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
A fun look at aliens in culture and science Nov. 13 2013
By K. Bunker - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
This highly readable and informative book explores aliens in culture and science. The first half of the book examines our cultural view of aliens, while the second half looks at our best current scientific speculations about the possible forms and probable prevalence of intelligent alien life. The first section is further divided into two parts: aliens as they have been described by UFO believers and the like, and aliens as they have been portrayed in popular science fiction.

In the segment on alien "sightings," Lincoln maintains a sensibly skeptical attitude, but he's more interested in reporting on UFO sightings, alien abduction stories, etc. as a cultural phenomenon than he is in detailed debunking. Personally I found this the most entertaining part of the book; it provides an engaging history of the popular fascination with "flying saucers" and (supposed) alien visitors.

In his discussion of aliens in science fiction, Lincoln concentrates on movies and TV shows -- the more popular branch of SF. Here he displays some formidable nerd-skills by running through the plot lines of a large number of alien-oriented movies and shows -- sometimes in considerable detail -- and making only a few tiny errors (to the best of my own nerdly powers to detect).

In the second half of the book, Lincoln turns to aliens in (speculative) reality. By looking at the history and range of life on Earth and other factors, he examines the likely possibilities (and the limits on possibilities) for life on other worlds. This leads to a discussion of the history of the universe itself, the formation of the elements life is made of, the types of stars whose planets might host life, the sorts of chemistry that might become a part of the processes of life, and so on.

The final chapter is devoted to describing attempts to detect, communicate with, or simply calculate the likelihood of intelligent aliens. The Fermi paradox is discussed (if intelligent life is common in the galaxy, why haven't we seen evidence of it?) as is the Drake equation (a tool for guessing at the number of intelligent species currently inhabiting the galaxy), and various ongoing SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) programs.

The book, like its subject, is a fascinating one, covering cultural studies, the creative speculations of science fiction, and a broad swath of the latest science, from cosmology to biology. It's a light and entertaining read; hardcore aficionados of the subjects it covers may find it somewhat superficial, but I think even they will enjoy reading it.

For those looking for a more rigorous, scholarly book on the subject of contact with aliens, I heartily recommend Contact with Alien Civilizations: Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials by Michael Michaud.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Do not Judge the Book by its Cover! Nov. 21 2013
By Lillian M. Matthews - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
At first glance the book cover looks like one of those crazy books about aliens. I almost didn't order it, but i changed my mind when i discovered the author is a respected physicist who works at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, America's preeminent laboratory for studying the basic building blocks of the universe; i was intrigued!
The gist of this book is to discuss the prevailing vision of aliens held by the general public, both in the past and currently. Chapter 1 looks at the public views before the 1900s with great emphasis on Martians. Chapter 2 presents stories of abductions, encounters, and other stories found in the media. Chapter 3 focuses on aliens as seen in movies, TV shows, literature, and other media in chronological order. Chapters 5-7 are the scientific speculation chapters, discussing what aliens MAY look like if they exist based on the known principles of biology, physics. chemistry, and evolution. The author presents possibilities of body type and composition, number of limbs, type of skeleton, nervous system, etc. Chapter 6 focuses on the chemical elements and most likely combinations that will lead to life in other environments. Chapter 7 discusses the Fermi-Hart Paradox and the Drake Equation.
I am SO very glad i ordered this book. It is very engaging and entertaining; the author shows a great deal of humor and his style of writing is well organized and quite clever. He is able to explain chemistry and physics in the most understandable manner (wish he had been my professor in college) and i enjoyed the historical view of aliens. Very enjoyable book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Excelent overview of how we think of aliens in popular culture March 25 2014
By Rabbi Yonassan Gershom - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
This book has two parts: in the first part, Don Lincoln traces the origins of our ideas about aliens in popular culture --what we think they look like, where the come from --and how we came to believe that way. Ranging from out and out hoaxes to the "canals" on Mars, foo fighters, the Betty and Barney Hill case, as well as popular movies, all have contributed to our expectations of what aliens "should" be like. To me, this was the best part of the book, presenting this material in a clear, chronological order that makes a great deal of sense. Some of these incidents and stories were known to me, but others were not, filling in some holes in my knowledge of this topic.

In the second half of the book, he explores the scientific realities of what it would take to evolve an intelligent race of aliens on another planet. Much of this I have read before -- after all, science is science, you can't take as many liberties with it as in fiction -- but there were still a few ideas new to me. I especially enjoyed his clear explanation of why a silicon-based life form would not work very well, even though you find that idea a lot in science fiction. He comes to the conclusion that life is pretty much guaranteed to be carbon-based, and probably on a watery planet. In other words, a planet a lot like earth. Whether or not you agree with that conclusion, the book is a fun romp through a lot of interesting ideas about strange new worlds. Enjoy!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Great for Sci-Fi writers and alien enthusiasts Dec 31 2013
By Sean Paradis - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
I absolutely love this book. At first glance of the title and cover, some may assume this is another crackpot writer throwing his conspiracy theories down your throat. But that could not be further from the truth. Lincoln takes a look at multiple angles of alien cultures, including books, television series and movies, and breaks them down. Then, using real life science of Earth, Lincoln talks about what could be true, and what is simply illogical. He essentially has a one man debate, half of him educating readers on the media's view of aliens, and the other half breaking it down into fiction, and possible fact. If this is what you prefer to read, rather than a one sided argument, this book will be perfect for you.


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