The Aliens Are Coming! by Ben Miller (book review).

February 21, 2016 | By | Reply More

Having read Ben Miller’s book ‘It’s Not Rocket Science’ last year, I was curious enough to read his latest ‘The Aliens Are Coming!’, where he looks at our search for extra-terrestrial life-forms. More so, as he’s the second comedian – all right, in his case, actor-comedian – to recently promote science on British TV, relying on his own education to prove that he could also have been a scientist.


In his introduction, Miller points out that there are some exotic life forms in the most extreme places on Earth, making all things possible already. His reflection that in the past decade the search for alien life has changed from being something few astronomers would admit to, to becoming fervent after the discovery of so many planets, which must surely increase the odds of finding ET-life, or so it would seem. He does raise Science Fiction from time-to-time although not with any expertise when it comes to visuals, only citing ‘Star Trek’ as an example, and, from my perspective, it does lay a foundation that people are less inclined to be dismissive of alien life anymore, which would probably deserve a book itself.

Although Miller includes an edge of humour, he does actually present a lot of information and raise questions that deserve some thought as well. Take Voyager 1, now the furthest piece of Earth technology from us leaving the Solar system. Miller points out that all it would need is a sentient alien that is either too small or too big to handle the disk on-board and the trip is wasted. Looks like Goldilocks also belongs to alien size. Saying that, if we are led to believe that robots will replace organics on other worlds, size would be immaterial. They might just regard us as primitive for not even reaching solid state yet or perceptive enough to know we hadn’t got that far when we sent our postcard.

Even Miller says it would be remiss not to examine the UFO phenomenon, albeit briefly and he only uses three examples that everyone uses, but nothing you haven’t read before. Equally, the same is also true for the Drake Equation, although he does bring that down to a couple of letters. As to scanning the skies for radio signals from other worlds, something I will comment on is we have been broadcasting for only a couple centuries. If there are sentients on other worlds who are younger than ourselves, then even if they had reached our level of development now, it would still be many centuries before we’d receive any of their radio signals here and might think they haven’t developed as much. Oddly, I’ve never seen the word associations for SETI that Miller has, either.

It’s hard to avoid proper science in a book such as this, but at least Miller goes some way to explaining the fundamentals of the conditions for life. More importantly, a strong reminder of how many planets in our local stellar neighbourhood who are within the Goldilocks area of their stars that could result in life. The only drawback is if they are like us and switch from radio waves for TV transmission to cable, how short a time signals will be sent out into space. Me in my speculative thinking would also have to wonder if there is a discovery of other means of interstellar communication and we just haven’t found our own ansible yet.

One thing this work does show is Miller completed this book in November and his comments on the theory of gravitational waves now being proven shows how quickly things are moving in science.

Another is in how we recognise life looking out for change, growth and reproduction. Mind you, thinking back to my chemistry days and growing crystals in solution, one should apply other criteria as well.

I do think Miller gets carried away with giving a history of life on Earth. Even if it’s used to show how much luck it took for it to happen here. Statistically, if life is possible, then it’s going to happen and Earth won the draw. It doesn’t mean that there can’t be more winners out there. That’s how statistics happen and blind chance will chunder forward again and again until something sticks. Miller points out how long it took Earth to evolve life-forms that we sprung from over billions of years; just because we haven’t found fossilised evidence, doesn’t mean there weren’t other attempts and failures. Strangely, the odds he gives for it to happen, 1 in 20,000, is far less than winning the lottery and that’s not even taking into account the available chemicals to make it happen would reduce the odds even more. As I’ve commented in the past, evolution doesn’t need an intelligent species and if humans were gone tomorrow, life on Earth would still carry on and most signs of our civilisation would be gone in a couple of centuries.

With the new SETI project set up, if you want to give your spare computer time over for analysis, look up ‘Breakthrough Listen’, and seti@home app, as it’s going to take a lot of computer power to analyse the information that their new radio telescopes will be picking up.

Miller uses the problem of deciphering the Rosetta Stone to indicate how hard it would be to interpret a written alien language. Putting my thinking hat on, we are making the assumption that alien life would have the same limitations as ourselves in how much information we can transmit. If they haven’t, then surely a short talking film with sub-titles, so we can associate it with basic science would be the best thing to send so we would get the basics quickly. Better still, they would only have to say things once, knowing that it could be watched time and again. The only thing we would have to work out is the algorithm they would have to use to compress the signal. Such a species would have to have an educational bent and might see our broadcasts akin to a pirate broadcast.

Although I suspect some of you are likely to skimp over the more scientific knowledge in this book, spend your time over it and you’ll have a better appreciation of the problems.

Interestingly, I’ve come up with several good ideas for articles and stories from the book which is always good for stimulating the brain. Any book that can do that is always good for a read.

GF Willmetts

February 2016

(pub: Sphere/Little, Brown Book Group. 287 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84744-502-5)

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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