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ALIEN CONVERSATIONS

Chris Impey (ed.) Talking About Life: Conversations on Astrobiology, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

This book comprises interviews with 37 people associated with various aspects of the search for extraterrestrial life and intelligence, dealing with topics ranging from the search for life on Mars, the chemistry of various solar system bodies, the development of life and mind on earth, the search for extrasolar planets, and the nature of extraterrestrial intelligence.

The views expressed here range from the cautious to the radical, and from those rooted in hard science to the more fanciful, and the views on extraterrestrial life range from those who see it as being widespread, to those who suspect it is extremely rare, perhaps unique to earth. Many contain interesting biographical backgrounds, which demonstrate the passions that motivate scientists, very different from the cold hearted, rational, science nerd of popular imagination.

This of course reflects the fact that exobiology is a subject for which there are no agreed facts or evidence, no one knows one way or the other, and much of the work on the subject is pure speculation. There is no agreement on how much the development of life on earth was the product of contingency, the accidents of history, and how much it was constrained.

There is absolutely no comfort in this book for believers in extraterrestrial UFOs, or extraterrestrial humanoids. Though some of the writers argue that intelligence will arise naturally, they are using the word in the most general sense of the word, one that embraces elephants, chimpanzees, dolphins, parrots and octopi, and not anthropomorphic intelligence. This shows that there is no real agreement as to what the word intelligent in 'intelligent life' actually means.

Nor actually what is meant by life. I suspect that we are as unlikely to agree what the word 'technology' might mean in a non-terrestrial context. I very much suspect that if alien life, mind and technology exist they are unlikely to resemble anything we have any experience of at all. - Peter Rogerson


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