Dr. Fred Bortz

Review of Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe

by Joel Achenbach

(Simon & Schuster, $25.00, 416 pages, 1999)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Washington Post reporter and National Public Radio commentator Joel Achenbach's "Captured by Aliens" is a curious, entertaining, and oddly autobiographical travelogue through a varied, colorful intellectual terrain. Readers, though never certain where their tour guide will lead them next, willingly follow. Together, they are searching for the quintessential extra-terrestrial being, never losing interest in the quest thanks to their leader's clever voice and idiosyncratic eye.

They may not find ET, but what an adventure it is to seek him, her, or it. When they reach their destination -- wherever it is and however long it takes to get there -- they know they will have grand tales to tell!

Achenbach's prose creates an unusual feeling of camaraderie with other readers. Some fellow travelers are scientific believers in alien life. They conclude that ET must exist simply because the universe is too vast for even the most unusual events to be unique to our small planet. Through telescopes, they look for signs of life on other worlds. They listen for intelligent signals from other solar systems with their radiotelescope ears. They examine the microchemistry and microscopic structures in rocks that by chance have made their way from Mars to Earth.

Others are scientists of the skeptical variety, asking Enrico Fermi's simple, probing question, "Where is everybody?" If human technology will soon take us beyond our small Solar System, they say, surely other civilizations in other solar systems must have already made their way here. The skeptics come along on the trip because they enjoy watching most of the other travelers speculate or jump to conclusions.

On the fringes of the tour group are the cultists who say that we are the descendants of ancient aliens and that our ancestors will soon return. Conspiracy theorists among the mixed multitude argue that ET is alive in a secret laboratory, and governments fear our reaction if the truth were to come out.

Achenbach takes his travelers to the great radiotelescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, where scientists first searched for extraterrestrial intelligence. They join him at a UFO convention in Las Vegas and visit the streets of Roswell, NM. Remarkably, Achenbach manages to offer readers of all predilections a chance to see their heroes treated with respect, if not credence.

Still no one would doubt who the author sees as his hero, Carl Sagan. Like the best protagonists of literature, Sagan is presented not as flawless but rather as noble despite his flaws. Sagan's errors are as monumental as his intellect, and Achenbach mourns his hero's death by leading his book and his band of followers in a direction that no one -- including the author himself -- had anticipated.

Who would expect to be taken into the office of NASA Director Dan Goldin's office to discuss religion? Who would expect Achenbach's humor to lead to deep philosophical questions?

"Again and again, as I tromped through alien country, I noticed that the most powerful battles in our lives are deeply personal ones," Achenbach writes in the closing chapter. "I was always struck that so many people who dealt with the alien question had their own struggle to stay healthy, or stay alive, or stay sane, or merely pay the rent."

With that statement, every member of Achenbach's motley band of tourists will look around at the others on the journey and wonder, "How could they have once seemed so odd -- almost alien -- when now they look so much like me?"

Ph.D. physicist Fred Bortz is the author of many science books for young readers, including Martian Fossils on Earth? The Story of Meteorite ALH84001, Millbrook Press, 1997.