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Is there life beyond Earth?
Until about 40 years ago, that question was beyond scientific investigation with one dubious exception: A few true believers have persistently advanced the hypothesis that some unidentified flying objects--UFOs--are alien spacecraft.
In support of that extraordinary claim, UFO enthusiasts offer no evidence beyond the unexplained sightings themselves. Instead of producing evidence of extraterrestrial visitations, they assert conspiracy theories to explain its lack.
Such explanations are difficult for most people to swallow. It stretches the imagination to believe that U.S. government has succeeded for six decades in hiding artifacts that prove intelligent aliens had visited Earth.
On the other hand, it is no longer a stretch for scientists to speculate about the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. Indeed, they now have the ability to gather evidence to test their hypotheses. These numerous tools can take us, writes astrophysicist Jeffrey Bennett in a book of the same title, Beyond UFOs to a genuine understanding of life on other worlds.
Dr. Bennett has co-authored a college textbook on the emerging science of astrobiology as well as two children's books about a space dog who visits the Moon and Mars. This book is intended for an audience in between: adults who don't care about academic credit but are fascinated with the idea of life on other worlds and who are looking for a few hours of intellectual exploration while curled up in their reading nooks.
Those readers will find much to approve of in this "book of possibilities" as the author describes it in the opening sentence of a promised-filled opening paragraph of chapter 1.
"It is about the possibility that, within a decade or two, robotic or human explorers will drill into the Martian surface and discover microscopic life.... It is about the possibility of landing spaceborne submarines on Jupiter's moon Europa, where they might... observe life swimming in a volcanically heated ocean. It is about the possibility of strange, cold-adapted life forms on Saturn's moon Titan.... It is about the possibility of... researchers detecting an unmistakable signal coming to us from a civilization that has grown up around a faraway star."
In a series of well-crafted chapters, the book delivers on all of those promises. These enable readers to envision "Worlds Beyond Imagination"; to discover what makes this speculative activity science; to contemplate what the author knows about aliens; and to probe what scientists mean by life, how it began here on Earth, and whether it might have begun elsewhere.
It then embarks on a grand outward trajectory from Earth, beginning with "The Makings of a Truly Great Planet" and then exploring possible life elsewhere in the Solar System. Its cosmic journey next carries readers to other solar systems in our galaxy, where simple life almost surely exists and intelligent life is plausible.
For the most part, these add up a very satisfying package that comprises the first part of the book's subtitle, "The Search for Extraterrestrial Life."
Less satisfying to many readers will be the author's diversions into the second part of the subtitle, astrobiology's "Astonishing Implications for Our Future." The paragraph cited earlier closes with this audacious claim for the book: "Most of all, it is about the possibilities that await us, if and when we learn we are not alone in the universe."
Whether the book ought to have such a goal seems problematic. Bennett even seems to recognize that himself. Numerous times, he warns his audience that he is about to climb up on his soapbox and preach. In many cases, such as when he is trying to persuade UFOs-as-alien-spacecraft true believers or people who believe science and religion are inherently in conflict, most readers will find themselves in the choir, wondering why the author is sermonizing on the obvious.
In other places, the preaching turns blatantly political. There, the writing is suggestive, but lacks the depth it needs to fully persuade. Readers on one side of the argument will nod their heads in agreement while those of the opposite persuasion will grumble about "green" or "peacenik" philosophies. The first group doesn't need the sermon, and the second will reject it.
Fortunately, even readers who are annoyed by the preaching will be willing to forgive the author for his flights of passion. At its core, this book delivers a combination that is hard to beat: solid yet highly speculative science plus accessible prose that add up to an out-of-this-world reading experience.
Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of many science books for young readers, including Astrobiology in Lerner Publishing's "Cool Science" series.