Skip to main content

If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens... Where is Everybody? - Stephen Webb ***(*)

I started this book with a sense of foreboding. The subtitle is 'Seventy-five solutions to the Fermi paradox and the problem of extraterrestrial life'. Any premise based on giving 75 different answers to the same question - in this case, effectively 'Where are the aliens?' - sounds like a trainspotter of a book. A title that is obsessed with collecting every possible viewpoint, over and above any value that can be gained from reading it. However, the first proper chapter, giving some background to the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, and the 'where is everybody' paradox that it is named after him, reassured me hugely, as it was entertaining and well written.

I can honestly say that if Stephen Webb had continued in this vein and had written a book about the Fermi paradox and its possible solutions in the same narrative style as his chapter on Fermi and the origins of the paradox, I would have given this book four to five stars. That chapter demonstrated just how well Webb can write. But the format of 75 'different' solutions lets him down. By about the 12 mark, the whole thing was getting a trifle samey. And by solution 20, I was skip reading, searching for interesting bits.

The book has a lovely range and covers many fascinating topics - for example, it went from Bayes' theorem to stone axe manufacturing in a few pages - but the constant return to yet another solution to the Fermi paradox gets, frankly, boring. Structured as a continuous narrative, the content of this book would have been excellent, but as 75 bitty 'solutions' it just doesn't work very well. 

This proved particularly irritating when Webb goes through all the different reasons why life could be rare in the universe, and says at the end of each, over and over variants on 'but of itself, this is probably not enough to justify the conclusion.' I found myself wanting to throw the book against the wall and scream 'But why should it be taken by itself? Why not combine the solutions?' .... And then Webb cheats and does exactly that in his own 'solution', number 75.

This was so near an excellent piece of popular science (I'm not really sure why it's part of Springer's 'Science and Fiction' series, as it merely references ideas from SF, but the majority of popular science books do that), just let down by the structure. I'd also say that the publisher is making a mistake pricing the book as if it were an academic title: it's more expensive than any normal hardback popular science title, let alone a paperback. (Academics may have free access to the ebook from Springer ebook deals.)

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

On the Moor - Richard Carter ****

There's much to enjoy in Richard Carter's pean to the frugal yet visceral delights of being one with England's Pennine moorland. If this were all there were to the book it would have made a good nature read, but Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it's inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants - I confess I was ignorant of the peregrine falcon's 200 mile per hour dive - or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS.

Carter is something of an expert on Darwin, and inevitably the great man comes into the story many times - yet his appearance never seems forced. It's hard to spend your time in a natural environment like this and not have Darwin repeatedly brought to mind.

I confess to a distinct love of these moors. Having spent my first 11 years in and around Littleborough, just the other side of Blackstone Edge from Carter's moor, the moorland…

Ten Great Ideas About Chance - Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms ***

There are few topics that fascinate me as much as chance and probability. It's partly the wonder that mathematics can be applied to something so intangible and also because so often the outcomes of probability are counter-intuitive and we can enjoy the 'Huh?' impact of something that works yet feels so far from common sense.

I think I ought to start by saying what this is isn't. It's definitely not an introductory book - the authors assume that the reader 'has taken a first undergraduate course in probability or statistics'. And though there's an appendix that claims to be a probability tutorial for those who haven't got this background, it's not particularly reader-friendly - in theory I knew everything in the appendix, but I still found parts of it near-impossible to read.

As for the main text, if you pass that first criterion, my suspicion is that, like me, you will find parts utterly fascinating and other parts pretty much incomprehensible. Th…