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There’s a common joke that suggests we should put the search for extraterrestrial intelligence on hold until we find some evidence for intelligent life on Earth. After reading LONELY PLANETS: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life (available from Amazon US and UK), by planetary biologist David Grinspoon, I feel safe in saying that we can focus on ET again as this book contains some of the best thinking you’ll come across.

What outstanding revelations led me to such an extraordinary judgement, you might ask? Well, get this – Grinspoon isn’t sure about much. In fact, he doubts a hell of a lot. If that sounds confusing, let me explain. This guy knows his stuff – he’s spent most of his life fascinated with space exploration and the search for life elsewhere. He’s got the necessary pieces of paper and the respect of his peers. But instead of presenting the cosmos according to Grinspoon, he simply says ‘here’s our best bet, but the possibilities may astound us’:

To me, the study of extraterrestrial life is as interesting for what it reveals about our own biases and hidden assumptions as it is for what it reveals about life in the Universe. We strain the boundaries of good science when we extrapolate to the rest of the cosmos based on only one example of a planet with life.

In a way, Grinspoon is the ideal author of a book discussing the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Obviously, as mentioned above, he’s got the requisite knowledge base. But additionally, two of his formative influences growing up were close friends of his father – ‘Uncle Carl’ and ‘Uncle John’. That’s Carl Sagan, one of the most influential minds of the last half-century – especially on matters of space and skepticism – and John Mack, the high-profile Harvard psychologist researching alien abductions (if you think that’s a neat coincidence, consider this – Sagan and Mack also won Pulitzer Prizes in consecutive years).

These influences encapsulate Grinspoon’s approach. While he supports the scientific method, and greets ‘outlandish’ theories with appropriate skepticism, he remains completely open to being proved wrong and has the humility to recognise that we may still be largely ignorant to the possibilities. In fact, the reader is left in no doubt that Grinspoon is a firm opponent of scientism:

Unfortunately, the skeptic’s attitude toward UFOs often has a moralizing tone, justified by a concern that the masses will turn back to medieval darkness if we don’t wake them up by shining the spotlight of science right in their faces

If that sounds like a caustic echo of Uncle Carl’s dictum of science as a candle in the dark, it may well be intentional. A little later, Grinspoon warns that “science may be a candle in the dark but it is also a lit fuse, and our future depends on an ability to grasp a truth that comes from somewhere beyond science.”

LONELY PLANETS is divided into three logical sections. The first, ‘History’, gives an insight into what humanity has thought about the possibility of ETs over the years. Grinspoon’s summation makes for informative reading, from the beliefs of the ancient Greeks through to Percival Lowell’s canals on Mars and the relatively new theory of panspermia. For example, many readers will be surprised to learn that just a few centuries ago, the general public believed widely in other planets populated by alien beings.

The second section of the book goes into the ‘Science’ behind the search for ET. Grinspoon sets out the current snapshot of orthodox scientific thought on extraterrestrial life, including a handy primer on the science behind it. Once again though, Grinspoon is loathe to preach dogma, and warns the reader that he doesn’t “claim to be objective, unbiased, or correct about everything”. Indeed, Grinspoon highlights the reason for the subtitle of the book:

Because I pay special attention to the limits of science, in a sense this is not strictly a science book but a work of natural philosophy. By using this term, I want to encourage a certain perspective on the science, an attitude where we keep ourselves honest by frequently questioning the framework of assumptions we use.

Grinspoon describes the third and final section of the book, ‘Belief’, as the “various unsupported limbs where the juiciest fruit is often found”. In what is easily the most entertaining and thought-provoking part of the book, he cuts free to describe some of his own ideas and speculation, as well as addressing the obvious questions of UFOs, the possibility of civilisations becoming ‘gods’ through technological evolution, and other various ‘Fortean’ topics (cattle mutilations etc).

This is simply one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. My only criticism is that Grinspoon could have paid more attention to the theories of researchers like Jacques Vallee, and gone more deeply into John Mack’s theories behind alien abduction. Nevertheless, it is certainly refreshing to hear a planetary scientist conceding that cattle mutilations are a mystery, and ideas such as the possibilitly that an advanced alien civilisation might appear to us as god-like in their abilities and manifestations.

Not only is the book filled with information, presented in a humble manner by a respected scientist – but it’s also damn funny. The footnotes on each page are often a wisecrack that Grinspoon has on a certain topic, and it just adds to the readability of LONELY PLANETS. So when he reveals that scientists feel the estimation of the longevity of technical ET civilisations is “totally unconstrained”, he footnotes it with the more obvious “which is the technical term for not having a freaking clue”. You’d have to expect as much from a scientist who says that he saw the answer to life, the Universe and everything in its entirety once at a Grateful Dead show.

For anyone interested in the search for alien intelligence, LONELY PLANETS is a must. It’s a refreshing read after so many books telling it ‘like it is’, whether alternative or scientific. David Grinspoon deserves applause for his approach to this subject, and his ability to inform the audience about the history and science behind the subject. One of my favourite things about the book is that everytime I read something and thought to myself “ah, but what about…”, Grinspoon answered that question (or at least contemplated it) in the following paragraphs. This book should serve as a model on how to explore the fringe areas of science – with a sane mind, an active imagination, and the humility to admit it could be all wrong. Put it on your ‘to read’ list…now.

LONELY PLANETS by David Grinspoon is available from Amazon US and UK