Book review: Are We Being Watched? The Search for Life in the Cosmos

Are We Being Watched? The Search for Life in the Cosmos – Paul Murdin

This is a rather interesting book but, what’s not to like about astrobiology? If you know me, you know that astrobiology is one of my favorite science topics, and that’s saying a lot! Anyway, Dr. Murdin’s professional affiliation is Cambridge University’s institute of Astronomy. He has published at least 10 other books and A LOT of other material, including scientific papers. He certainly knows what he is talking about. Normally, I would expect an author with such expertise to excel at her/his own area, while being so-so in others.

I was pleasantly surprised that was not the case for “Are we being watched?”

The book is very well-researched and lucidly written, yet a little (very, very little) dry in some parts. The physical science aspects related to the search for like elsewhere was pretty much pristine and thorough while the “life” part of the search for life elsewhere was somewhat lighter. In all fairness, there is not much to say about that at this point of the game. We just don’t have any information whatsoever about life elsewhere; all we have are guesses with various degrees of education.

That said, I wouldn’t have minded a little more shameless speculation, as per the title. Actually, the word “watched” and derived words appear only 4 or 5 times besides the title. I suppose that the idea for the title came from the editors for marketing purposes.

My favorite chapter was the chapter on Mars. I believe that this is one of the most complete, best-written chapters in any book on the topic that I have seen. With the wealth of information about other potential life-bearing worlds in our solar system, the story of the search for life in poor Mars is oftentimes treated rather hurriedly. Not in this book.
The book has some delightful stories in the endnotes that would not have been too much out of place in the text itself, but the “Further readings” section was kind of brief. Also the book ended a tad abruptly and in a rather pessimistic / sad note, but I have to say that the topic lends itself to that naturally, so I don’t blame the author for that.

You know that the nitpicks are coming.

I was only able to find three. Please note that I usually include the page of my “nits”, but in this case, I will only be able to tell you the chapter because I read this one as an ebook.

**Chapter 9: “All atoms of the same element have the same number of electrons…”

This is incorrect. Atoms of the same element can differ in their number of electrons. When this happens, we talk about “ions”. What actually defines an atom is the number of protons.

**Chapter 11. When referring to antifreeze proteins, the text states that they do not exist in fish.

Not so, antifreeze proteins in fish have been known for more than 20 years. For example see:
Davies PL, Hew CL. Biochemistry of fish antifreeze proteins. FASEB J. 1990 May;4(8):2460-8. Review.

**In Chapter 13, the author states that in the Viking labeled release experiment a Geiger counter was used to detect Carbon-14.

This is a tougher one. Most Geiger counters are unable to detect Carbon 14. I was unable to find information about the specific type of counter used in the Viking missions, so I reserve my judgment here.

I still like Weird Life better, but Are we being watched? is a solid second.

Picture credit: Thames and Hudson

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