Thursday, October 17, 2013

Don Lincoln's "Alien Universe"

Don Lincoln is a senior scientist at Fermilab and author of The Quantum Frontier: The Large Hadron Collider.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Alien Universe: Extraterrestrial Life in Our Minds and in the Cosmos, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Alien Universe marks a transition in the tale I tried to tell. Many people are fascinated by the idea that we are not alone; that there are extraterrestrial intelligences and that these fellow inhabitants of the galaxy might even be nearby, at least galactically-speaking.

When I ask people what they expect an alien might look like, I get a common answer. Aliens are about four feet high, gray, with egg-shaped heads, and black, almond-shaped eyes. Most of the people who have told me this don’t claim to have ever seen an alien and not even a UFO. Yet we as a community have a common picture in our mind of what an alien would look like. Did you ever wonder how that came to be?

While UFO aficionados can tell you a multi-century story of lights in the sky, the idea of extraterrestrial visitors exploded into the human consciousness in 1947, first with reports of flying saucers, followed by alien visitors and abductions. The image of the traditional gray alien first arose as recently as 1961, with lots of transference to stories dated much earlier.

In this book, I explore the various alien tales in fiction and in stories claimed to be fact, telling of the evolution of our image of extraterrestrials. In page 99, I have completed that story and am summarizing the various different aliens proposed in science fiction and “true” UFO tales.

The book then moves forward, using modern physics and chemistry to learn about what is possible and what is not. Silicon based life forms appear fairly commonly in science fiction because silicon shares carbon’s ability to make four atomic bonds. However the story isn’t so simple. This becomes obvious when you remember that silicon dioxide, the silicon analogue of the carbon dioxide we breathe out, has a more common name: sand. It’s hard to imagine solid sand being a viable product of respiration.

Alien Universe ends with a discussion of the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) programs of the last half a century. Although we cannot say anything definitive about alien life, that doesn’t mean we know nothing. Science has taught us much about what is possible. It is not impossible that the first alien we encounter will be a little green man who says “take us to your leader,” but the reality is likely to be…well…far more alien than that. Alien Universe tells us that tale.
Learn more about Alien Universe at the the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue