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Civilized Life in the Universe: Scientists on Intelligent Extraterrestrials

By: George Basalla

233 pages, 3 halftones, 28 line illus

Oxford University Press USA

Hardback | Feb 2006 | #158349 | ISBN: 0195171810
Availability: Usually dispatched within 5 days Details
NHBS Price: £22.99 $30/€26 approx

About this book

This book is a selective and fascinating history of scientific speculation about intelligent extraterrestrial life. From Plutarch to Stephen Hawking, some of the most prominent western scientists have had quite detailed perceptions and misperceptions about alien civilizations: Johannes Kepler, fresh from transforming astronomy with his work on the shape of planetary orbits, was quite sure alien engineers on the moon were excavating circular pits to provide shelter; Christiaan Huygens, the most prominent physical scientist between Galileo and Newton, dismissed Kepler's speculations, but used the laws of probability to prove that "planetarians" on other worlds are much like humans, and had developed a sense of the visual arts; Carl Sagan sees clearly that Huygens is a biological chauvinist, but doesn't see as clearly that he, Sagan, may be a cultural/technological chauvinist when he assumes aliens have highly developed technology like ours, but better. Basalla traces the influence of one speculation on the next, showing an unbroken but twisting chain of ideas passed from one scientist to the next, and from science to popular culture. He even traces the influence of popular culture on science--Sagan always admitted how much E. R. Burroughs' Martian novels influenced his speculations about Mars.

Throughout, Basalla weaves his theme that scientific belief in and search for extraterrestrial civilizations is a complex impulse, part secularized-religious, and part anthropomorphic. He questions the common modern scientific reasoning that life converges on intelligence, and intelligence converges on one science valid everywhere. He ends the book by agreeing with Stephen Hawking (usually a safe bet) that intelligence is overrated for survival in the universe, and that we are most likely alone.

The text is well illustrated with a historical series of ancient to more modern graphics. The book, Civilized Life in the Universe, could easily make a text basis for a fascinating course on the subject. Jorg Matschullat, Environ Geol, Vol 50, 2006 The fantasist roots of ostensibly scientific projects is a central theme of george Basalla's excellent, edifying and enjoyable book Civilized Life in the Universe, a little landmark in the study of the history of science. Keay Davidson, San Francisci Chronicle Basalla's analysis is fresh, thoughtful and well worth reading. New Scientist The idea of a celestial intelligence, argues George Basalla, is science's replacement for the Gods it deposed. He believes that the inward-seeking religious impilse was swapped for a star-gazing quest for tangible "creators". And throughout his enjoyable chronology of our search for life "up there", the University of Delaware's emeritus professor of history picks up on a significant number of Western alien-hunters, whose faith in "something beyond and above us" may have its roots in a renounced fundamentalist Christian upbringing. 22nd April 2006 ...critically important Civilized Life in the Universe, the best treatment on the history and science of the subject since Steven Dick's magisterial two volumes (3,4)...tightly woven and highly readable narrative..." Michael Shermer, Science, March 3 2006


1. Trio of Ideas; 2. Life on the Moon; 3. From the Moon to the Planets; 4. The Ascension of Mars; 5. Percival Lowell: Champion of Canals; 6. Mars Unveiled; 7. Carl Sagan: Mars and Beyond; 8. Life in an Expanding Universe; 9. The Trajectory: CETI to SETI to HRMS; 10. Mirror Worlds; 11. Afterword; Sources of Quoted Material; Bibliography

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