On January 10, 2019, news sites across the web ran a story that anyone even remotely interested in extraterrestrial life would recognize as significant. For the second time, a fast, repeating burst of radio waves had been detected in space. When a similar burst was first observed in 2015 — labelled FRB 121102, in that poetic nomenclature of astro/cosmologists — hopeful alien hunters declared that if another were to be discovered, it would be a significant addition to the evidence indicating that alien life exists. As yet, nobody has officially declared contact but we’re waiting for word, no doubt. Of course, none of this settles the perennial question —

Are we or aren’t we alone?

Human beings have wondered about their place in the universe since the dawn of history. They turned their eyes toward the sky, looking past tree tops and cloud cover, at the formations of stars that appeared every night. Babylonians. Persians. Egyptians. Greeks, Romans. Chinese. They all turned to constellations to help fix their place in the universe. Their concerted efforts lay the groundwork for today’s physicists and astronomers.

Ironically enough, modern science has assumed the stargazing mantle but have shifted their focus to exploring the universe for even the faintest indication of organic life forms. There’s a lot of information out there about aliens and exoplanets, but settling on a start point is often as daunting a question as the existential one. Never fear. Michael Wall’s new book, Out There: A scientific guide to alien life, antimatter, and human space travel (For the cosmically curious), offers a succinct and accessible summary of the search for extraterrestrial life in the 21st Century.

The popular press seems to carry new stories that tease the existence of life. The by-products and supporting elements are already out there. Traces of water on the moon. Subsurface oceans on Europa. Frozen patches of land on the Red Planet. Methane on Mars. Exoplanets similar in size and composition to Earth in so-called Goldilocks zones ideal for the development of organic life, at least as we understand it. Even media-savvy entrepreneurs like Elon Musk speak of colonizing and terraforming the Martian surface and making it hospitable for human beings. Without a doubt, the dawn of the New Space Age has arrived.

The question whether aliens exist tends to fall squarely in the “Yes” column. Nobody would bat an eyelash hearing you declare that you believed intelligent life exists in some far off cluster of stars light-years away. (On the other hand, if you claimed to have met said life form, expect a fair share of derisive snickers.) Rest assured, with even a fraction of the information Wall shares, you’ll have the tools to build a convincing case.

Unfortunately, conspiracy theories and unfounded conjecture muddy the discourse surrounding extraterrestrial life. A cursory glance at documentaries on YouTube or Netflix provides ample evidence. Aliens on the moon or riding passing asteroids and comets. Unidentified flying objects so commonplace that they have “classical” spaceship designs — that is, saucer-like with round port windows evenly spaced around the vehicle. There’s a lot of noise out there and it helps to have a guide. And that’s where Out There comes in and shines.

Wall provides the background and explanations to key questions that arise when considering the search for extraterrestrial life. He relies on them as convenient chapter titles and topics: Where is everybody? Do Aliens have sex? What are we looking for? Will aliens kill us all? He discusses his subject matter and explanations point-by-point, as if working straight off an outline. In this case, that’s a good thing since clarity’s what counts here.

Wall is also not afraid to veer off-topic, when the narrative dictates, to delve into some basic astrobiology that establishes the conditions that allowed life to develop on Earth. Without an appreciation for the explaining the origins of life, it’s difficult to consider what form extraterrestrial organisms might assume. That being said, Out There never ventures too far off topic. For the purposes of the book, Wall’s methodical approach proves ideal. It never feels as if the subject is threatening to overwhelm the reader nor does one get the sense that the explanations are being dumbed down.

Out There goes a long way toward fostering a basic, scientific literacy on its topic. For anyone interested in research-based information about the search for ET, Wall proves the perfect guide and a sure hand. As an introduction for lay-readers, it’s the perfect primer.

Out There: A scientific guide to alien life, antimatter, and human space travel (For the cosmically curious) by Michael Wall; Illustrated by Karl Tate; Grand Central Publishing (ISBN-13: 9781538729373)

WORD SOURCE: Marc Landas

IMAGE SOURCE: Grand Central Publishing

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