Reviews

E&T takes a look at the latest books.

The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone In The Universe?

By Paul Davies
Allen Lane, £20

'Are we alone?' remains one of the most tantalising questions about life on Earth, and one which for the last 50 years the research initiative SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has sought to answer by sweeping the skies with radio telescopes.

Since no alien radio messages have yet dropped into SETI's inbox, some people have concluded that intelligent extraterrestrials do not exist. An alternative explanation is that radio communication was a short-lived craze in the smarter parts of the universe after which the intergalactic internet used something high-tech like high-energy neutrinos.

In his latest book 'The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone in the Universe?', the physicist Paul Davies explores these and other ideas to set out the case for SETI to broaden its scope beyond radio and look for 'signatures' of intelligence. 'If an alien civilisation were to look at Earth, the signature of our technological culture would be global-warming,' Davies explains to me when I catch up with him in London during his recent book tour. 'We need to decide how an advanced alien technology would affect its environment in space and here on Earth, because at some point in the last four billion years our region of space might have been visited.

'Maybe humans are leftovers from alien bio-trash?' he adds, reflecting a seam of bone-dry humour that runs through 'The Eerie Silence', making it an immensely entertaining discussion of the arguments for and against SETI as well as a scientifically rigorous one.

For example, if extraterrestrials have evolved into quantum-computer-based post-biological entities that hover in the outer reaches of space, pondering on ever more subtle mathematical theorems, the chances of detecting them would be slim, Davies points out. 'The business end of a quantum computer is a handful of atoms but you need a big life-support system to power it, which would have to be kept cool. But it is naturally cool in intergalactic space. A slightly warm London-bus-sized quantum brain is not going to be easy to find!'

Davies hasn't given up on traditional radio SETI but thinks the most fruitful activity would be to search for beacons. 'You need a dedicated system of radio telescopes that all stare at the centre of the galaxy for months on end to wait for that 'bleep'. There is no technical reason why we couldn't do this but whether anyone will pay for it is another matter.'

Davies began his scientific career in the 1970s at the University of Cambridge's Institute of Theoretical Astronomy. Today he runs the Beyond Centre for Fundamental Concepts at Arizona State University and co-directs the university's cosmology initiative. As a scientist, he says his mind is open to new evidence but on balance he thinks we probably are the only intelligent beings in the observable universe. On a human level, however, Davies is fascinated by the notion that we might have fellow travellers, his particular interest (covered extensively in the book) being microbial signs on planet Earth that life might have happened more than once. 'In the future we could find signs of life in the atmospheres of extra-solar planets but that is a long time ahead and expensive. For now we can look for 'life as we don't know it' here,' he tells me. 'We have only scratched the surface of the microbial realm.'

Astrobiologists are already guessing about forms weird microbe life could take. Felisa Wolfe-Simon at Arizona State University is investigating whether arsenic might function like phosphorus for structural and energy storage purposes. Nasa's Richard Hoover and Elena Pikuta have been looking for signs of 'mirror life', on the premise that DNA is a right-handed spiral so left-handed spiralling might be a signature for something stranger.

Those who question the value of rooting around for microbial oddities should note that Davies runs a US research project in which astrobiologists bring their insights to bear on cancer, exploring parallels between, say, the behaviour of multi-cellular bio-films made by microbes in deep ocean volcanic vents and how cancer cells interact with the body's connective tissues. 'A tumour is not an organism but there is a division of labour with cells organising their own blood- and lymphatic-supply. Maybe cancer is a resurgence of an earlier way of doing multi-cellular life and as we age, this older way comes out?' he speculates.

'The Eerie Silence' is a timely reminder of how thrilling fundamental science can be and why funding it matters. As Davies puts it: 'If we cannot be bothered to answer the deepest questions of existence our priorities are wrong. The cost of doing SETI wouldn't even cover a small bank bailout whereas to find we were not alone in the universe would dwarf the discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin combined and forever transform our world view.'

Reviewed by Christine Evans-Pughe

Remarkable Engineers: From Riquet To Shannon

By Ioan James
Cambridge University Press, £19.99 paperback/£50 hardback

After his very excellent 'Remarkable Mathematicians', 'Remarkable Physicists' and 'Remarkable Biologists' it is a great pleasure to see Professor Ioan James turn his attentions to engineers. Whilst all of us live everyday with the products of engineering, the lives of the engineers who created them - with the exception perhaps of Brunel - are rarely treated in print outside the pages of E&T. This is a great shame, for as James demonstrates in his 51 short biographies, engineers are a remarkable group.

Beginning with Pierre-Paul Riquet, the man behind the Canal du Midi, James takes us on a chronological tour through the lives of a broad range of innovators, starting with civil engineers, and moving through electrical engineering, via a good selection of mechanical trail-blazers, before finishing in the near-present with Claude Shannon, the founder of information theory.

Each biography covers all the salient points of each life in order, documenting the trials and tribulations that seem to be the trajectory of so many engineers' lives. James however is always careful to avoid over-recording his subjects, keeping each biography down to just a few pages, giving a brief but authoritative introduction to many people who should be much better known.

Whilst it is wonderful to find such shamefully forgotten characters as Granville Woods here there are, as with any collection, some engineers who are notable for their absence. As James says in his introduction it is hard to identify engineers from before the Renaissance and still harder to find women engineers. Yet there are plenty of pre-Renaissance engineers to be found in the Islamic world such as Al-Jazari and the Banu Musa brothers.

The lack of more female engineers is also noticeable. We get to hear the story of John Augustus Roebling and his son Washington, whom James credits as the engineer responsible for the Brooklyn Bridge, but only two lines are found for his wife, Emily, who is not even named. This is a pity as contemporary sources credit her as the real engineer behind the project following her husband's paralysis. She was the first woman ever to address the American Society of Engineers and at the bridge's dedication the Mayor of New York said it was: 'an everlasting monument to the sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she had been too long disbarred.'

If ever there was a pioneering engineer worth celebrating, I'd say it was Emily.

However hard decisions must always be made in books of this nature and women are not entirely forgotten. We do get to meet the wonderful Hertha Ayrton, the first woman elected a full member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, the forerunner of the IET, and Edith Clarke who played a similarly ground-breaking role in electrical engineering in the US.

It is rare thing to see so many engineers standing side-by-side in one volume where we can compare and contrast their often extraordinary lives and James has marshalled a fine company for us to inspect. For anyone foolish enough to suggest that engineering is 'boring', this stands as an convincing repost.

Reviewed by Justin Pollard

Therompoetics

By Barri J Gold
MIT Press, £22.95

Does literature - poetry in particular - carry energy?

I have never doubted the fact that words and even separate sounds could be warm, cold or tepid/neutral and therefore higher or lower charged. One of my favourite eccentrics, poet Velemir Khlebnikov (1885-1922), who modestly referred to himself as the Globe's Chairman and the King of Time, used to experiment a lot with the energy of sounds and even claimed that his abracadabra-ish five-liner 'dir-bull-shchil/ubeshchur/skoom/vi-so-boo/ r-l-ez' contained more 'Russian national energy' than all the poems by Pushkin combined. Significantly, the poet came from a strong scientific background.

In my university diploma paper, I dealt with (among other things), warm and cold sounds in the early poems by Henry Longfellow.

Barri J Gold, associate professor of English at Muhlenberg College, in his excellent and (yes!) very unconventional monograph goes much further. He tries to bridge Victorian literature with science and engineering and succeeds in doing so. He talks about Dickens' 'Bleak House' as 'the engine of a novel' and about Tennyson's 'thermodynamic optimism' he analyses Dracula's methods of gathering and using energy: 'Dracula channels energy into a localized source, drawing it all together first through Lucy and, he anticipates, through Mina. In each case, the woman functions not only as a source of energy, but also as the small hole Dracula opens and closes to control the flow of energy in the form of blood.'

The latter quote comes from Chapter 6, 'Bodies in Heat: Demons, Women, and Emergent Order'. Among other self-explanatory chapter titles are: 'Tennyson's Thermodynamic Solution' and 'A Far Better Rest: Equilibrium and Entropy in 'A Tale of Two Cities'. But my favourite one is of the prologue - 'Physics for Poets' which, to my mind would have been a far better title for the whole book.

It goes without saying that many pages in the book are devoted to 'The Coming Race' by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the one-time dweller of Knebworth House. In this utopian 19th century novel, Bulwer-Lytton described an underground tribe of intelligent winged creatures powered by a mysterious energy called 'vryl'.

'Energy and persistence conquer all things,' wrote Ben Franklin. Gold uses these words as his book's main epigraph. They can be in equal measure applied to himself: it must have taken a lot of both energy and persistence to put together this highly eccentric volume and turn it into a fascinating read for poets and physicists (read scientists and engineers) alike.

Metaphors and eccentricities aside, one thing is certain: real literature (and that includes Gold's book) is capable of energising readers by educating and inspiring them.

Reviewed by Vitali Vitaliev

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