19 July 2013


Edward Ashpole. Signatures of Life: Science Searches the Universe. Prometheus Books, 2013

This book is mainly concerned with speculating about the possibilities of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Various hypotheses are formed and considered, but attempting to do science with no data is rather frustrating. The most sensible idea discussed is that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) should not be conducted by attempting to detect radio signals from distant planets.
But rather by investigating the possibility of alien space probes lurking in our solar system, and containing intelligent robots, rather than biological creatures like ourselves.

Some writers have followed up this idea, but Ashpole goes further and favours combing through UFO reports and various phenomena allegedly associated with them, such as crop circles, as well as taking seriously at least some of the people who look for evidence of alien constructions on the moon and Mars.

In considering UFO reports from aircrew he does not seem to be aware that some of what seem to be the best ones have failed to stand up to expert critical examination, often because some of the testimony presented is shown to be unreliable, or can reasonably be attributed to manifestations of natural phenomena, or sightings of other aircraft. For instance, he seems impressed with the classic RB-47 radar-visual case, but does not seem to be aware of the detailed explanations which have been published and argued about over the years.

When it comes to other phenomena allegedy associated with UFOs, he tends to take the self-appointed experts a little too seriously, but never quite swallowing any of their claims or theories whole, although it is sometimes difficult for the reader to decide what he really thinks. For example, crop circle researchers informed him that "genuine" cricles have characteristics that are not found in hoaxed circles, this probably being caused by microwave radiation. He seems to take them at their word and suggests that university biology departments should investigate them, but comments: "Crop circles are too close to UFOs for academic comfort and are best avoided". I think it is possibly not the crop circles but the circle investigators that the academics wish to avoid.

Among the explanations offered for UFO sightings, perhaps the oddest one which Ashpole considers is Roy Dutton's ,Astronautical Theory,. Dutton's research began in 1967 when he read the details of UFOs reported in the Manchester area of Britain. He collected these and other reports over the years and developed the theory that these were craft from alien spacecraft which sent them into the atmosphere and then retrieved them. From the details of the theory which have been published it should surely have by now been independently confirmed by other researchers but this has not happened. Yet Ashpole takes it seriously enough to devote space to a description of it.

This is not the sort of book one would usually expect from Prometheus, as it deals, without so much as a sceptical sneer, with much material which you are unlikely to see in their other publications. -- John Harney

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