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Book Review: The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence by Paul Davies

Review by Elizabeth Quill

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After 50 years of scanning the skies for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, astronomers have only silence to report — an eerie silence, Davies argues.

Part history of the search, part road map for its future and (large) part mind-stretching exercise, the book provides Davies’ perspective on profound questions that have implications far beyond alien hunting. Is life inevitable? What about intelligence? How long do advanced civilizations last? What would happen if alien cultures met?

Though these questions have been asked before, Davies, a cosmologist, recaps recent thinking and describes new scientific investigations. He uses the lack of clear answers to call for a shake-up in current efforts to search for life beyond Earth. Since no one can predict the nature of other intelligence, he says, scientists from all fields should look for subtle signatures of societies rather than direct communication via radio waves or some other familiar technology.

Davies makes a good case for a broader approach, but his hypothetical examples of alien footprints seem a little wild. What if, for example, the reason scientists haven’t detected some of the subatomic particles predicted by theory is that the particles were abducted by aliens? And he suggests that some intelligence may be postbiological — a quantum computer, perhaps, lingering in the coldest reaches of the galaxy. Though his ideas seem fantastical, Davies’ tongue-in-cheek approach is entertaining and serves a grander purpose: to encourage readers to think less about life as we know it and more about life as we don’t know it.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade, 2010, 288 p., $27.

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