Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Beyond UFOs – Jeffrey Bennett ***

Jeffrey Bennett does a lot of public talks, and admits that he often has to let people down gently that he isn’t talking about UFOs and little green men. The important point here is the word ‘Beyond’. The book is about whether extra-terrestrial life exists, and where it’s like to be found, not about visiting aliens. (He also tells a sad but smile-raising story of giving a public talk where he expected a few tens of people to turn up and in fact the hall was packed out. It seems the advertisements had promised a talk on astrology rather than astronomy – but Bennett kept the audience anyway, and gave them something to interest them.)
It’s entirely understandable that he kept that audience. Bennett is clearly a good, engaging speaker, because a lot of his text comes across just like that, and it’s not a bad thing. It feels personal, warm and interesting. The book spends quite a while on how the Earth came into being and how life was formed, so we can extrapolate to the rest of the universe. It then gives us a tour first of the solar system and possible homes for life there, and then considers what we know or can speculate about planets and moons around other stars. This is well done, although to be honest, when you’ve heard about one moon of a gas giant, they all get rather the same – it’s a bit like being taken on an architectural tour of a modern housing estate.
Leaving aside that things do get a little dull in those middle chapters, the other problem is that however excited Bennett can get about bacterial life, it’s not so thrilling for many of us, and I have a bit of sympathy for those who do hope for something a bit more Star Trek. He does spend some time on why any aliens advanced enough to have interstellar travel wouldn’t need to do the sort of things UFO owners are supposed to do – and this is good – but there’s still a slight feeling of over promising. This also comes through in his arguments for why we should be establishing a base on the moon and sending manned expeditions to Mars, which are unconvincing when you consider what other things science could do with that kind of money.
The subtitle here is The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Its Astonishing Implications for Our Future. In the end, this emphasizes why the book was a bit of a let-down despite being well written. I just didn’t get the feel of any astonishing implications for our future. Bennett’s enthusiasm is obvious and delightful – saying anything negative about this book feels a bit like kicking a puppy. The topic is covered reasonably well. But I didn’t feel this added anything to the other ‘search for alien life’ type books that have been around for a while.
Review by Jo Reed

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