Skip to main content

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.
Hardback:  
Review by Jo Reed

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…