Dr. Fred Bortz

Sharing the Universe: Perspectives on Extraterrestrial Life

by Seth Shostak

(Berkeley Hills, 1998)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Nearly everyone believes in extraterrestrial life, says astronomer Shostak, Public Programs Scientist for the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute. Unfortunately for SETI scientists, much of the public believes that alien visitations are common, yet have been improbably covered up by massive government conspiracies. Though healthy skepticism is the stock in trade of science, this perception breeds an unhealthy mistrust for the work and motives of serious scientists working in this speculative field.

In prose as lively and dramatic as the science-fiction movies he clearly savors, Shostak describes scientific reality in the book's final chapter. "If it happens, it will begin slowly and without warning in a radio telescope's cramped, cluttered, control room. Here, under a hundred tons of steel faced off against the pinpoint gleams of the night sky, a back-burner experiment could change the world.... The astronomer, while taking note, is not excited.... It's probably another satellite, briefly mimicking E. T. as it parades across the sky.... Within a few days, the signal will have been confirmed beyond reasonable doubt.... The drama begun by a computer's soft beep will have grown to a worldwide din."

The book is rich in interesting science, and its occasional lapses into excessive speculation about artificial intelligence in space can be forgiven. Its only serious flaws are its Foreword, by SETI's founder and director Frank Drake, and its section on the history of the SETI Institute. There the author and his boss heap praise on one another in words better left for proposals to potential funders of their enterprise.