By Fred Bortz
(Although not strictly a "Urantian" article, I hope you'll agree that it is an interesting one...ed.)
"Beyond UFOs: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Its Astonishing Implications for Our Future"
by Jeffrey Bennett
Princeton University Press, 211 pp., $26.95
Is there life beyond Earth? Until about 40 years ago, that question was beyond scientific investigation with one dubious exception: the persistent but unsupported hypothesis that some unidentified flying objects — UFOs — are alien spacecraft.
Today, however, respectable scientists armed with real data are able to speculate about the existence of life on other worlds. Spacecraft have probed every planet from Mercury to Neptune. Advanced telescopic instruments and techniques have detected hundreds of planets orbiting other stars, and it is probably only a matter of a decade or two before the first extrasolar Earthlike world is discovered.
As astrophysicist Jeffrey Bennett declares in the title of his new book, it is time to look toward the emerging science of astrobiology. "Beyond UFOs" is, as the opening paragraph of its first chapter promises, "a book about possibilities."
"It is about the possibility that, within a decade or two, robotic or human explorers will drill into the Martian surface and discover microscopic life. It is about the possibility of landing spaceborne submarines on Jupiter's moon Europa, where they might melt their way through miles of ice and observe life swimming in a volcanically heated ocean. It is about the possibility of strange, cold-adapted life forms on Saturn's moon Titan."
And another possibility looms: the arrival of "an unmistakable signal coming to us from a civilization that has grown up around a faraway star."
In a series of well-crafted chapters, the book delivers on all of those promises. It takes a grand trajectory from Earth — which has "The Makings of a Truly Great Planet" (as one chapter title puts it) — to the stars. Planet by planet, moon by moon, the book explores the possibility of life elsewhere in this solar system. It then speculates about other solar systems in our galaxy where, according to the prevailing scientific view, simple life almost surely exists and intelligent life is plausible.
For the most part, Bennett's search for extraterrestrial life adds up to a very satisfying package. More problematic are his diversions into his personal philosophy and politics as he weighs extraterrestrial life's "astonishing implications for our future."
Numerous times, Bennett climbs on his soapbox and preaches. In many cases, such as when he is trying to address people who reject science in favor of religion, most readers will find themselves wondering why the author is sermonizing on the obvious. In other places the preaching turns blatantly political. Readers on one side of his argument will agree, while those in opposition to him will grumble about "green" or "peacenik" philosophies. The first group doesn't need the sermon; the second will reject it.
Fortunately, even readers who are annoyed by Bennett's preaching will be willing to forgive his flights of passion. At its core, this book delivers a combination that is hard to beat: solid yet highly speculative science plus accessible prose that add up to an out-of-this-world reading experience.
Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of many science books for young readers, including Astrobiology in Lerner Publishing's "Cool Science" series.