1/8/2010. Contributed by Neale Monks
pub: O'Reilly Media. 432 page hardback. Price $24.95 (US). ISBN: 978-0-59600-037-0.
check out website: http://oreilly.com/
Up front it should be stated that 'Beyond Contact' isn't a book about aliens or what they might be like, the 'soft' science that Science Fiction fans frequently refer to as xenobiology. Instead, Brian McConnell has produced a 'hard' science book focused on the twin problems of establishing contact and communicating in a meaningful way. After all, there's not much point to discovering alien civilisations if all we can say to each other is 'beep, beep'!
The book is divided into four parts. In the first part, McConnell discusses current hypotheses on the likelihood of alien civilisations. One of the key issues here is just how common alien civilisations might be. At the most extreme is intelligent life so rare and so unlikely to evolve that the only place in the universe that it exists at all is right here on Earth. That's certainly one point of view, in which case SETI is a complete waste of time. It's one way to explain the Fermi Paradox: if alien life is common and interstellar travel possible, why haven't we detected it or been visited by aliens yet? Given the age of the universe and the vast number of stars in our galaxy, even if intelligent life is rare and interstellar travelling speeds are low, there should still be lots and lots of civilisations. While the idea that humans really are alone is one explanation, it isn't the only point of view and the famous Drake Equation is one way to estimate the abundance of alien civilisations. This formula contains a string of variables, some more or less measurable and known, others essentially still guesswork. McConnell spends a fair number of pages reviewing each of the variables in turn, explaining where scientists get their estimates from and what they are doing to refine those estimates into robust values. He explains, for example, that the third variable, the number of stars with planets, was merely guesswork when the Drake Equation was invented, but has been steadily refined since the 1990s following the discovery of stars with planets orbiting them.
The second part concentrates on the hardware used to send and detect signals and the software needed to send, receive and process those signals. Compared to the fairly easy first part, this part of the book is very technical and quite heavy-going. To be fair, McConnell does a great job of explaining how transmitters work, what meaningful signals might look like and how projects such as SETI@Home help scientists to find such signals from amongst the background noise of space. Many readers will doubtless be aware of the use of radio telescopes for this sort of thing, but using lasers for interstellar communication will probably be much less familiar. There are good arguments to be made in favour of both and McConnell explains the pros and cons of each of them.
In the third section, McConnell focuses on how communication might be carried out between ourselves and any alien civilisation. Again, this is a fairly technical chapter and a lot of it is really about digital communication rather than communication with alien beings: how to compress images, how to encode text and so on. McConnell has a telecoms background and it's clear that 'Beyond Contact' reflects his particular enthusiasm for a technology he calls binary DNA over the others. But there is some good stuff here nonetheless, including explanations on how signals like the famous Arecibo Message work. The Arecibo Message was an encoded message that contained information such as our counting system, some chemical elements and compounds essential to life and even a sketch of what a human being looks like. Though notorious for being sent somewhere life is very unlikely to exist, the globular cluster M13, the message was more of a proof-of-concept and an illustration of how radio telescopes could be used to send complex messages within very short and simple signals. While the Arecibo Message is quite well-known, other ways complex messages have been sent will be less familiar and McConnell briefly explains these alternatives. Even so, while these explanations are useful, they're far too short compared to the very long section on binary DNA.
The fourth part of the book contains the appendices, glossary and some useful resources.
As both a trained biologist and an amateur astronomer, this reviewer has an interest in SETI rather than expertise, so isn't in a position to critique the computer science or mathematical parts of this book. But with that said, 'Beyond Contact' contained parts the reviewer found highly robust and rewarding, parts that seemed excessively detailed and parts that were simply heavy going. McConnell does a great job explaining things like the Fermi Paradox, the Drake Equation and the various arguments and explanations spun out from them. Admittedly, much of this material is speculative, but it's thoughtfully written and very accessible. The less rewarding parts are those focused on the computer science aspects. Although doubtless valuable, they simply feel too long and in many cases go into stuff that applies generally to digital communication rather than specifically to communication with alien civilisations. On the other hand, had they been filleted down or removed completely, the book would have lost quite a bit of its scientific weight and that was perhaps something McConnell was anxious to avoid. In any case, many readers will probably flick through these bits. Thankfully, there are lots of excellent illustrations here, so even if you don't bother with the text explanations, it's easy enough to get the gist from the charts and diagrams. McConnell is an excellent writer, but he's obviously a technical writer writing for a particular audience. That's pretty standard for O'Reilly books, which are mostly aimed at computer science graduates and IT professionals. Without a maths or computer science degree, it's probably fair to say that much of the third chapter will be incomprehensible; it's a shame this chapter is so darn long!
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