Book review: Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by Dr. Seth Shostak

I am sooooo behind in my reading…

Even though this book was published close to seven years ago, it still conveys the excitement, wonder, hope, and yes, mystery of our ongoing search for other technological intelligences.

Let’s take a couple of things out of the way before we go on. This is a witty, funny book. Here’s some gems:

“Today, fictional aliens are so ubiquitous that they should probably unionize.”

“The moon was drier than a Mark Twain quip.”

“…an interesting story (if nuttier than peanut brittle).”

“Life is a durable as Christmas fruitcake”

… And several more… 0_o

To be honest, the first few clever phrases were really amusing, but as I kept on reading I found myself groaning “…really, another one?” It became somewhat distracting, but once I got past that, I really enjoyed the book. I was able to appreciate how comprehensive and well-written it is. For example, he manages to summarize a wide historical arc on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, from the ever-present Greeks to the non-existent Martian Canals to the modern search for our technological cousins “out there”.

He also mentions Stephen Baxter’s notion that our deeply ingrained curiosity about finding non-earth technological intelligence comes from a longing to find out “peers than once were”, as in the other species of humans that once shared the planet with us. I disagree with this interpretation, simply because as a whole, we humans tend to historically display little tolerance for “peers” that differ from us in skin color, way of thinking or even the way we talk, but this is a topic for another time.

Oddly, the “Wow” signal was not even mentioned…

Overall, this book made me think, and despite being very well-read in the area, I even learnt a thing or two. For example, I was not aware that detecting an unequivocal ET signal will not immediately mean that it will be decoded, even if it is only the often portrayed signal composed of prime numbers or the digits of Pi. I did not know that any captured signal is averaged with others, which “erases” any possible meaning. My initial despair over this was relieved when he further explained that once detected, there are ways of capturing the undistorted signal. Still the deciphering of it would be an entirely different matter.

The one section that I would have left out is his discussion of UFOs, Roswell, The face on Mars, etc. These topics have been thoroughly examined critically elsewhere.

That being said, Shostak did a **great** job in his overview of the problems and ramifications of “The Search”. He gave just enough detail to be correct and informative while at the same time leaving the reader (including yours truly) wanting more, with a strong motivation to actually look for more sources on the topic to read further.

As many good popular science books, Confessions gives you a veritable rollercoaster experience; specifically you are really alternating between feeling optimistic and pessimistic that we will find “others” in our universe.

Down the line, the book ends with an almost lyrical, very hopeful note. You see, as entertaining and good as the book is, my favorite part was the epilogue. But, do me a favor, do not skip to the end, read the whole thing and everything will beautifully fall into place, you’ll see, trust me.

My favorite sentences:

“Debate is entertaining, but exploration and experiment are definitive.” (Page 11)

“The universe is simply too large for me to easily accept that only here, only on Earth, has senseless chemistry organized itself into sentient beings.” (page 298)

By the way:  Do you like popular science books?  Why don’t you check out mine? (:-)

 

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Credit: National Geographic

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