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Alien Universe: Extraterrestrial Life in Our Minds and in the Cosmos Hardcover – Sep 9 2013
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Rather than dismiss Alien life out of hand, he presents the historical and social reasons for the growth of our fascination with the possibility. After covering popular ideas, Lincoln then delves into what is scientifically possible, explaining the concepts beautifully and in layman's terms... This is a clear and clear-sighted look at Aliens by a man who would be delighted if one day they appeared. Publishers Weekly I immediately warmed to this book. It's not only written in terms the average lay person can understand but it follows a well structured theme that has a start, middle and an end. I like that because it maintains order in a subject that deals mainly with a mix of confusing ideologies, fact and scientifically based interpretations. -- Dave Reneke David Reneke's World of Space and Astronomy By combining the latest research with historical perception, Alien Universe successfully creates an outstanding inquiry highly recommended for any science-based collection looking for a blend of historical references and modern-day probes. Midwest Book Review Whether you are drawn to the psychological belief in aliens, the history of our interest in life on other planets, or the scientific possibility of alien existence, this book will hold you spellbound. Lunar and Planetary Information Bulletin The book is a level-headed fusion of pop culture and the latest scientific advances in the field of astrobiology, discussing the requirements for life on Earth. -- Trevor Cox BBC Focus This book comes close to being the definitive guide to where we are in the search for extraterrestrials. -- Bill Condie Cosmos
About the Author
Don Lincoln is a senior scientist at Fermilab and author of The Quantum Frontier: The Large Hadron Collider, also published by Johns Hopkins.
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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.
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.
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.
The narrative is organized around two major themes: the interest in and perceptions of the possibility of visitations from inhabitants of other planets via "flying saucers", including the "reported incidents" of viewings and abduction-type encounters as well as the science fiction that has developed in books, movies, radio and TV shows; and, the scientific background for the possibility of the existence of intelligent life with technical capacities.
The first section presents a survey both of the purported "sightings" and interactions with UFOs beginning with the experiences of WWII fighter pilots and others during the 1940's and `50's who reported various weird phenomena including what were called "foo fighters". However, prior to that Lincoln gives a good thumbnail survey of the dawning of astronomy and the development of understanding of the universe from Aristotle to Lowell (who came up with a "map" of the Martian "canals" and vastly enhanced the notion of life on Mars). It is useful to be reminded that what we know of the solar system itself has changed greatly over the past century-and-a-half, obviously due to improvements in technology. Lincoln does an excellent job of putting these events into capsule form for the non-technical reader.
After presenting a page of "images of iconic Aliens" that he hypothesizes most readers will be able to identify (even I, who am not an avid viewer of movies or television, "got" all but a couple of them), the author goes on to present a survey of the various literary and movie/TV fiction that has featured Aliens. As he points out, this is by no means exhaustive, but does account for the mental pictures that most 19th - 21st century people presumably have developed of Aliens. If for nothing else than an intriguing chronology and glimpse into the cultural impact of modern media, this survey is valuable. This section also contains some worthwhile and amusing insights in the area of human suggestibility and mass psychology.
The second, somewhat briefer section of the book goes on to the subject of the current scientific understanding of the parameters of the formation of life here on Earth as well as the present status of astrobiological knowledge. Lincoln manages to hit the high points of the necessary astronomical, biological and chemical background without going overboard with technicalities. Again, speaking as the high school chemistry teacher I was before retirement, I consider his discussion of the details of chemical bond formation that would of necessity impact the potential for producing alien life quite clear and well-presented. However, he also offers valuable insight into more unfamiliar areas, including the "weird organisms" that evolved on this planet during its early days, and how these might or might not relate to the possibilities in other parts of the galaxy. In all, I believe this book is both informative and enjoyable, though by no means a definitive treatise on the topic - but of course, that's not what the author was going for.
The second half of Lincoln's book is where things really shine. Part two covers plausible scientific theorizing about what alien life would actually really be like, based on actual science. With the real-universe limitations of chemistry and physics (not to mention biology and evolution) how might, plausibly, alien life develop? How would it actually attempt communication, or try to make itself understood? These are fascinating questions that go well beyond the tropes of "pop" science fiction and the author's enthusiasm (and knowledge) in the scientific arena really makes the speculation sparkle.
Overall, I would give part two of the book 5 stars and part one 3 stars, averaging out to the 4. That said, this is a worthwhile read based purely on the second, scientific part of the book alone, for anyone interested in the search for alien life. Consider part one to be a sugary bonus on top of the nutritious middle. Book length is short, overall under 200 pages, making for a fast, interesting read.
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