20 December 2013


Don Lincoln. Alien Universe: Extraterrestrial Life in Our Minds and in the Cosmos. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013

The purpose of this book is to explore the question: "Are we alone?" As there seems to be little prospect of getting a definitive answer, we are given a history of speculation on the subject. The first chapters consider the sources of information which have guided our collective image of Aliens. (Lincoln has capitalised 'Alien' to indicate intelligent aliens to distinguish them from alien life in general.)   🔻
The popular notions about aliens are based on scientific speculation, stimulated mainly by advances in science, and public interest in them, aided by increasingly easy access to information. In the early 19th century newspapers were expensive, having very small circulations, and were mainly devoted to financial and political journalism. However, one of the new popular papers, made possible by the introduction of steam-powered presses, was the New York Sun, which first appeared in 1833.

In August 1835 the Sun announced that the astronomer Sir John Herschel, who was in South Africa studying the southern sky, had an enormous telescope with which he could view life on the moon, including intelligent life. This became known as the famous (or infamous) Moon Hoax, which set a precedent for futue sensationalist stories -- true or false -- which continue to appear in what became known as the tabloids. As this hoax is so well known, though, I think that the author devotes rather too much space to it.

During the 19th century, observations of Mars gave rise to speculation that the planet was inhabited by intelligent beings, as some of the features on its surface were interpreted as possibly being canals used for irrigation. One of the most prominent astronomers who believed in the canals was Percival Lowell (1853-1916) who founded the Flagstaff Observatory in Arizona in order to observe them.

In the early 20th century, as bigger and better telescopes came into use, it became generally conceded that the canals were illusory. However, the interest generated in Mars inspired writers to produce fiction about Aliens, perhaps most notably H.G. Wells with The War of the Worlds, which appeared in 1898.

Linclon's dicussion of science fiction about Aliens which developed during the 20th century has plenty of detail, but is rather inadequate in exploring the links between science fiction, ufology, and sociological studies of popular interest in allegedly true reports, and rumours about Aliens.

In the second part of the book there is discussion of the the different forms of life on Earth, and how similar life forms on other planets might eventually evolve into intelligent beings capable of scientific and technical achievements. We are told: "Aliens are highly unlikely to be humanoid." However, like most other writers on this question, Lincoln obviously does not have a clue as to what they might look like, only about what they might not look like, i.e. too big, too small, etc.

The chapter on the possibility of detecting Aliens is almost entirely confined to describing the use of radio telescopes in the attempt to detect artificial radio signals from distant star systems. The possibility that long-established Alien civilisations might have colonised many other planets over millions of years is mentioned but, surprisingly, there is nothing about the possibility that alien space probes might be lurking in our solar system, even though there is plenty of serious literature available about Bracewell probes, designed to communicate with newly discovered civilisations, and self-replicating von Neumann probes.

The main subjects of this book are perhaps best be treated separately. It should perhaps also be noted that the author seems unaware that science fiction fans are unlikely to be UFO enthusiasts. Readers who wish to obtain further information on anything that interests them will be frustrated by the lack of references, there being only a list of suggested reading. -- John Harney

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