Book Review: Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique (Part 1)

Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique by John Gribbin

From the dust cover:

John Gribbin is one of today’s greatest writers of popular science and the author of bestselling books, including In Search of the Multiverse, In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat, and Science: A History. He trained as an astrophysicist at Cambridge University and is now Visiting Fellow in Astronomy at the University of Sussex.

Regarding life in the universe, I some years back concluded on my own that life is not some rarity, but a natural state of matter, pretty much inevitable given certain minimal planetary conditions. I based the conclusion on an odd idea I have about entropy – that life “hitchhikes” on the flow of energy from greater to lesser concentrations, and in the process ratchets up the speed of that flow, accelerates entropy, which is something the universe “likes” very much. So there’s a natural condition that pushes things toward … life-iness.

Regarding intelligent life, I wanted to believe in flying saucer visitors when I was a teenager, but gradually concluded that there was no such thing, just based on the physics of light speed and the distances involved. Nothing like us is going to travel that far, that long, just for curiosity’s sake.

But I still thought intelligent life was out there. It just seemed too … convenient, I guess is the word, that WE had it, even at our low level. (And yes, I don’t think humans are very bright. In fact, I think we’re – collectively – probably one-half to one-tenth as bright as we need to be to survive.)

Long a fan of science fiction and a lover of the Star Trek (but not the Star Wars) Universe, I’ve sort of taken it for granted that there’s other intelligent life in the galaxy and universe. Somewhere out there.

In my adult life, I don’t think I’ve ever really considered the idea that there might not be. That we might be the only ones in the Milky Way Galaxy.

Interestingly, it’s a very Christian idea, isn’t it? That God created us, and only us, and that the Universe revolves around us? Maybe that’s why I rejected the idea without thinking very much about it.

To someone like me, the thought that we’re alone is disturbing as hell – something like what I felt (still feel) after my Dad died.

One of my post-Dad realizations was that I have to be a grownup now. Because THE grownup in my life, was no longer there to back me up, to allow me to be a big kid for a few more years. You’d think I would have figured that out by now, at the age of almost-60. But surprise, there in the back of my mind had always been this comfortable feeling that I could skate through life making jokes and chuckling at everything, finding amiable delight in whatever happened, never taking any of it too seriously.

Because I had this older guy on my team who had a grip on the taking-it-seriously angle, I never had to worry much about it. Of course Dad was a big kid too, but I figured with all his life experience, he was a big kid because he knew it was okay.

In the midst of reading this book, I discovered I had something of the same thing in my head about intelligence in the galaxy. Sure, we Earth people are idiots, and are likely to kill ourselves in just a few years. But somewhere out there are older, wiser civilizations, there to carry the banner for Intelligence.

I remember going to a lecture by physicist/author/UFO researcher (!) Stanton Freeman quite some years back, and he argued that, given the age at which intelligent life arose out here on our galactic arm, and given that there are stars nearer the core which are more than 3 billion years older than ours, there might well be civilizations 3 billion years or more advanced than us. Which would mean, he suggested, unimaginable, no-limits technology.

Gotta tell yuh, I loved the idea. Even if we human fuckups never made it off the block, if we destroyed ourselves in a nuclear war or burned the planet out with our infestive population, there would still be a community of galactic wisdom. Even if we never get to join it, the Club of Mind in the Milky Way would go on.

But then along came this book.

[ Continued in Part 2 ]