Planetary Dreams

Robert Shapiro. Planetary Dreams: The Quest to Discover Life Beyond Earth. John Wiley and Sons, 1999.

Another book stimulated by the recent speculation about potential life in the Martian meteorite. This one, however is more interesting than some of its rather dull rivals, and treats the subject from a historical, scientific and philosophical point of view. Unlike some of the other writers in this field Shapiro is a biochemist who has made a specialist study of DNA. He is a tentative supporter of the hypothesis that life arises naturally when chemical organisation reaches a certain level of complexity, which opposes to what he calls 'the sour lemon' theory which regards life as so improbable that it may have only arisen the once. He suggests that the debate as to which of these two theories are correct might be settled by the detection or none detection of life of some sort on some of the satellites of the outer planets, the speculated ocean of Europa being one such.

He makes a controversial suggestion that a search should also be made for extraterrestrial artefacts within the solar system though he does not rate the chances of detection very highly. He also briefly examines the UFO evidence, but is not greatly impressed by it. He makes the point, that has been made previously in Magonia, that the only really probative evidence for the ETH would be a sample of tissue having no genetic relationship with any terrestrial organism. He lists a couple of other suggestions which would provide evidence for exotic technology, but also makes a point also made here, evidence of exotic technology would not in itself prove the ETH. He makes the argument, also noted in Magonia that the ETH ceased to a really viable hypothesis once it was clear that UFOs could not be flying saucers from "the moon, Mars and Venus" as one old contactee pamphlet put it. The more parsimonious explanation for an exotic technology would be an exotic terrestrial technology, and he slyly notes that an absolute face value interpretation of the UFO evidence with tales of humanoids conducting breeding experiments on humans, and a technology which resembles ultra high performance aircraft rather than space ships. Of course, Shapiro makes it clear he doesn't consider either of these possibilities is being at all plausible. -- Peter Rogerson. Originally published on-line, July 1999.

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