The title and preface of this book led me to believe that I was about to read about UFO sightings, alien abduction and an anecdotal story of why Jeffrey Bennett believes in aliens. Instead, I soon discovered a discussion of how we can scientifically evaluate the possibility that life, intelligent or otherwise, exists somewhere out there in the universe.
Beyond UFOs broaches the questions that many of us often ponder, such as "Are we alone?", "What is life, and when, where and how did it arise on Earth?" In helping us to find answers, Bennett introduces the many scientific disciplines involved in the search for life: genetics, physics, astronomy and geology, to name just a few.
He states early on that his main goal is in "helping you understand what science really tells us about extraterrestrial life". The reader is invited to go "beyond UFOs" to explore why their sightings are not proof of alien existence and why it is that "only through science will we actually learn something about other life in the Universe, if indeed it exists". Bennett goes on: "I tell this story ... to emphasise what I consider to be the most basic difference between science and beliefs. Science is supposed to be based on verifiable evidence ... ".
He is careful to ensure accuracy and scientific methodology, but maintains an open mind and poses imaginative questions. "What does alien technology look like? Could we really know that they're here?" Bennett promises a book about possibilities, and that is what he delivers.
There are a few things I found mildly irritating, such as an occasional digression to personal narrative. And as Bennett has an American audience in mind, this leads to analogies and quantitative information that are sometimes incomprehensible: "Earth ... would orbit far enough from the Sun for almost two first downs in football." I have absolutely no idea what this means.
As an educator, my main criticism is that the book's intended audience is not immediately apparent - that is, I am unsure who would get the most out of reading it, as its pitch varies greatly. Common terms are expounded in great detail whereas less familiar ones are used without explanation. For example, the raisin-cake model of the expanding Universe is discussed at length while an explanation of the term "spectroscopy" is barely mentioned despite its wide-ranging applications throughout.
Bennett explains that he has "necessarily had to leave out many details that lie behind the topics discussed", and this is what one would expect for a book of this length. My contention, however, is that the level of discussion is inconsistent.
The old adage "don't judge a book by its cover" (or, in this case, its title) certainly applies here. While one might expect a book of science fiction, Bennett presents this awe-inspiring topic in a scientifically accurate but personal way. I would recommend it to anyone interested in reading a creative summary of the status of the search for life elsewhere in the universe and would hope that it might provide a starting point to inspire the next generation of astronomers and astrobiologists.
Beyond UFOs: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and its Astonishing Implications for Our Future
By Jeffrey Bennett
Princeton University Press
Published 1 March 2008