Aliens is the best book for now to understand the different dimensions, the interdisciplinary explorations, and psychological and sociological questions related to human search for alien life.
We humans have, from the beginning of time, looked at the night skies filled with stars and wondered: were gods ever up there? Gods and maybe their celestial servants living in their own realms? And as we slowly started understanding what the stars were, the gods and celestial beings began to be replaced by the longing for contact with extraterrestrials. As we began as a species, and begin as individuals, to feel the immensity of space and vastness of time in the universe, a cosmic loneliness starts haunting us.
We sang songs about that possibly in our fantasies of alien visitors and in our scientific search for extra terrestrial intelligence. From the famous Fermi's Paradox to the celebrated Drake's equation, we have been as a species inspired to search the skies and listen, through electromagnetic windows, for our cosmic cousins, even as we send probes and encoded messages out to them.
There are many books written on the subject. From Isaac Asimov to Carl Sagan, the generation of the seventies and eighties had a brilliant team of science writers who expounded on the matter. And now, even as brilliant science writers like Richard Dawkins and professional sceptics like Michael Shermer battle the anti-science and pseudo-science movement that is globally gaining strength, the word 'alien' may bring to mind that notorious and fraudulently sensational American television series called Ancient Aliens.
The yearning to find out about extraterrestrials has indeed led to an avalanche of pseudo-scientific nonsense. Swiss author Erich von Daniken made a career out of selling the ancient alien fantasy. In the process, he belittled the study of history and archaeology, and abused the common intelligence of his readers.
More recently, this writer came across a statement from a “spiritual guru” who claimed that Siva was an alien and Mount Kailash, an alien artefact. Yet another guru claimed that aliens were always in contact with us. He went on to describe devas as chieftains of alien worlds. The search for extraterrestrial life has been marred by the intervention of such crackpots and charlatans.
So if you are a serious science enthusiast, there is every possibility that you might pass over this book in plain sight. The eerie greenish granular dark cover of the book and the title, Aliens, have an uncanny resemblance to the 1986 Aliens movie. Then how can this be a good science book? It cannot even claim to be a good work of science fiction. You may think that and move on, as I did. But then the loss is yours entirely. It was just by accident that I saw the name Jim Al-Khalili and, at once, with no second thought, pulled it out of the stands and bought the book.
And what a treat it turned out to be!
For the uninitiated, Jim Al-Khalili is one of the best faces of science of our time. A theoretical physicist, his interest and contributions to quantum biology are important to our understanding of life. His book Life on the Edge, which he co-authored with Johnjoe McFadden, is a must for anyone who wants to understand how interdisciplinary science is unravelling the mysteries of life.
In quantum biology, one of the important central phenomena is the Quantum Zeno Effect. This was discovered by Sudarshan and Misra in 1977. Another central figure in Indian science is Dr Apoorva Patel, who proposed quantum algorithms for why life on Earth evolved four nucleotide bases and 20 amino acids. As we will see, though Patel is not mentioned in this book under review, his contribution is critical while studying the possibility of origin of life elsewhere in the universe.
Aliens is a collection of 20 articles by leading experts in their domains who study the problem of aliens - extraterrestrials, not necessarily green humanoids with antennae on their heads and UFOs but also possible extraterrestrial microbes.
Here in this collection, all aspects of alien life forms are studied - from the possibility of the evolution of life on other planetary systems and our psychological expectations and sociological reactions to them.
In his introduction, Al-Khalili points out that just 4.25 light years from Earth, in the Proxima Centauri star system, a planet was discovered in 2016 whose year is 11 Earth days and whose temperature range allows liquid water to exist on its surface. Al-Khalili points out that this means we will be able to visit this planet one day and check it out for ourselves. Already a 20-year long probe to visit the planet, called Starshot, is in the preparation stage. So the youth of this decade may well witness humans meeting aliens in a star system near home.
Cosmologist Martin Rees in his article points out how the search for alien life has moved in the last two decades from the “speculative fringe” to the “vibrant frontiers” of mainstream science. He points out how while there is a possibility that under the ice of Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn's moon Enceladus may lie a rich variety of organisms, the Earth is almost surely the only place where intelligent life forms have evolved. It is interesting to know that as early as the sixteenth century, the brilliant mind of that heretic burnt at stake, Giordano Bruno, conjectured that “on some of those planets there might be other creatures as magnificent as those upon our human Earth”. As our search for extraterrestrial life expands and deepens with next-generation instruments, Rees suggests two things about the entities SETI could reveal:
1. They will not be 'organic' or biological.
2. They will not remain on the planet where their biological precursors lived.
Astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell takes a look at various reasons seen in Hollywood as to why aliens would visit us, and dismisses most of them. Here are a few scenarios he discusses: ‘Aliens visit us to enslave or for breeding partners', 'Aliens come to us to harvest us for food', and so on.
Then, the question: why the galactic silence? Dartnell points out that either an oxygen-rich atmosphere is so common that we do not stand out or life is so rare a phenomenon that there is not a single galactic civilisation that can draw our attention. Then he points out that in our life time, our atmosphere-reading space telescopes may tell us which one of these two possibilities are right.
McFadden, the co-author of Al-Khalili's book on quantum biology, points to the possible role of quantum processes that could have made the first self-replicator molecule possible on Earth. He explains:
And if quantum mechanics did indeed help to solve the problem of finding the first self-replicator on Earth, then there’s no reason to believe it should’nt have played the same role on other planets. Of course, the conditions would have been different on an alien world, with different atmosphere, different chemistry in its oceans, different physical cycles etc. But as already noted, self-replication is a general problem and unique solutions may have been required on different worlds that were suited to the conditions and resources found there. Yet the ability of quantum mechanics to explore multiple solutions simultaneously would have allowed it to compute the answer to the problem of how to make a self-replicator on any world.Quantum Leap: Could Quantum Mechanics Hold the Secret of (Alien) Life?
If and when the centrality of quantum processes to the emergence of proto-bio informational molecules on Earth become well established, then life elsewhere can be seen as material variations on the same quantum process algorithms. In that case, the contributions of Dr Apoorva Patel and another Indian physicist Dr Arun K Pati, whose pioneering contributions to the field of quantum biology, should make India integrate the discipline of quantum biology with search for alien life. Already, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and cellular biologists have forayed into the problem of technically extraterrestrial microbial life in the upper reaches of the atmosphere.
Not just the scientific aspects of the question but also the literary and psychological aspects of alien contact are discussed in the compilation. Mathematician Ian Stewart explores the way our imagination has created extraterrestrials in our science fiction literature. With his enviable collection of over 8,000 science fiction books, it is a treat to read that article. And he finishes it with a poignant statement: “How we treat aliens, or react to their presence” - in science-fiction literature, of course - “reveals a lot about ourselves. We have met the alien, and it is us” (‘Monsters, Victims, Friends: Aliens in Science Fiction Writing’).
Adam Rutherford explores how we present aliens in our movies - mainly in Hollywood. They range from mostly mediocre xenophobic movies to the sub-par graphics grandeur of the kind of Independence Day (1996). There is the fantasy of Spielberg in both Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and ET (1982). Then he moves to Kubrick’s classic screen presentation of 2001 (1968) of Arthur Clarke and the movie adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Contact (1997). Personally, I would like to make a comparison between the fantasy-based Close Encounters (with its rich religious symbolism) and Contact, where the tension between science and religion in the West with respect to alien contact is explicitly brought out.
Interestingly, Rutherford comes strikingly to the same conclusion as Stewart when he studies the movies’ presentation of aliens: “Are we alone? For me, the real answer is that the more we look, the more we find out about ourselves, both in science and science fiction.”
With respect to close encounters, there is an article on the phenomenon of abduction (the so-called close encounters of the fourth kind) by psychologist Chris French who has studied the phenomenon professionally and concludes that these experiences of the abductees, which are so numerous that they merit to be called a phenomenon that needs to be studied, have “plausible counter explanations, based upon well established psychological principles ...”. No, they are not small green or grey beings that abducted you but your own neuronal processes.
There is also balance. Evolutionary biologist Matthew Cobb provides the case for the possible absence of aliens in the vastness of the universe. We are all alone and the biological diversity here is so immense. We are unique, he says, and explains that abiogenesis is “a highly improbable event” and that it “may have only occurred once in 3.8 billion years” and eularyogenesis, which set the accelerated evolution of multi-cellular life forms in motion, has not happened the second time, despite the fact that “there are more single-celled organisms alive on Earth than there are Earth-like planets in the observable universe”. So he concludes that the “apparent inevitability of the existence of human civilization” has “not been guided by some supernatural force, nor is it written in our genes”, but “we have just been very very lucky”.
He concludes that he would be happy to be proven wrong with respect to alien life on other planets, but he is not betting on it.
Another interesting article is the possible alien consciousness right here on planet Earth - in the form of non-primate consciousness, or invertebrate consciousness. It is by neuroscientist Anil K Seth. Through the study of the possibility of octopus being conscious, he looks at the way humans can interact with an alien consciousness. So are octopuses conscious? Seth explains:
Our current best guess is that human consciousness depends on how different brain regions talk to each other. ... As one popular neuro-scientific theory puts it : conscious experiences contain a great deal of ‘integral information’. Could an octopus be conscious on this basis? ... Definitive evidence for octopus consciousness is still hard to come by. At a behavioural level, octopuses, like most other creatures, go through cycles of waking and sleep, and they also respond to anesthetics like isoflurane as similar close dose concentrations to other species. But at the neural level we know very little. ... Even though direct evidence about perceptual consciousness in octopuses hasn’t yet been found, the fact that octopuses display impressively flexible behaviour does suggest that they may indeed have conscious perception.‘Aliens on Earth: What Octopus minds can tell us about alien consciousness’
Then from there he proceeds to the question of discovering and interacting with alien consciousness. And the way he concludes is one of the most profound passages written in the history of science writing - lines on which behavioural science students can meditate and create frameworks and tools for exploration:
We humans are forever trapped within the inner Universes prescribed by our own brains, bodies and environments. But by studying the limits of our own awareness alongside the remarkable abilities of other species, and by realizing the way we experience the world and the self is not the only way , we can gain startling glimpses into a space of possible consciousness. We might never experience what it is like to be an octopus, but it seems very likely, that there is something it is like to be this terrestrial alien. As for extraterrestrials, wherever they may be, the possibilities are even more tantalising. ... At the furthest reaches of our imagination we may find disembodied intelligences of ‘hive minds’ supporting a consciousness that is spread out across multiple individuals, so that there is no single ‘I’. What is certain is that the inner Universes of consciousness - whether for you, me , an octopus or an alien - are every bit as fascinating and mysterious as anything we might find out there among the stars.
It is interesting that all this outer search for alien life also reveals a great deal about our own inner universe. In fact, this is true of almost all sciences where the search for the outer reveals in its own way the inner - after all, it is we who view the universe and try to understand it through our tools.
If you want to understand the different dimensions, the interdisciplinary explorations, the kind of scientific, psychological, and sociological questions related to our species’ search for alien life, then this is the best book - the compilation makes for wonderful reading. Even as I finish this review and share the joy of having found and read this book, the Mars rover ‘Curiosity’ of NASA has discovered complex organics preserved in three billion-year-old sediments at Gale crater in Mars. Now get the book and read Monica Grady’s article on finding not aliens but Martians on Mars.