BY ANDREW MOODY
That’s a quote I’ve pilfered from the late Robert Anton Wilson, former editor of Playboy and co-author of the mind-bending conspiracy novel The Illuminatus! Trilogy, which I feel fits in perfectly for this review of Avi Loeb’s disappointing new book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth.
Loeb serves as the chair of Harvard University’s Department of Astronomy, is a founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation within the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative, chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies, a member of the advisory board for the digital platform Einstein: Visualize the Impossible from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in Washington, DC. With credentials this dauntingly formidable, one would expect that the UFO, given the name Oumuamua and the scientific label 11/2017 U1, would produce in Loeb’s book a genuinely mind blowing narrative.
Alas, there is nothing particularly unusual or provocative about his ponderous account of Oumuamua (pronounced Oh-moo-ah-moo-ah). One would expect details of communication with alien lifeforms, not merely philosophical musings about the possibilities future UFO’s may offer for human discussion. Despite the odd prose flourish in this relatively short book, what Loeb promises the avid and curious readers is not what he delivers. The bulk of his thesis comprises a passionate appeal to the scientific community to be more open minded when it comes to studying extraterrestrial life. A lifelong academic with a vast reputation, he would probably be surprised at how most common or garden individuals aren’t adverse to the belief in alien lifeforms, and will make up the majority of the audience for this book.
My scientific knowledge is limited, hence the reason I preordered this book with genuine fascination, and felt let down when I realised midway that Loeb’s work of popular science was misnamed: there is no proof here that Oumuamua is the first sign of intelligent life beyond earth. Rather, it is a somewhat rambling investigation into the author’s religious and political agenda, even managing to reflect on the two world wars and the Holocaust. I’m sure when he was writing it, Loeb believed he was writing a popular science classic, a step forward from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. What could be a bigger subject than extraterrestrial contact?
Like any open minded writer, I’m a sucker for a good story. Nowhere in this ponderous, brief book are ultradimensional beings covered, what Robert Anton Wilson classified as beings that exist within the dimension between wake and sleep. Most famous of all ultradimensional beings is the fabled Mothman of West Virginia, immortalised in John A. Keel’s abysmally written, fascinating book The Mothman Prophecies. I mention the Mothman in passing; he/she/them/it has been scaring tourists since the 1960s, so why does Loeb maintain that a flat, cigar shaped object which passed briefly into our solar system is the first contact with alien life? Seems like Loeb should take a brief sojourn from his academic ivory tower, and leave philosophy to those on the ground floor. Maybe Oumuamua is Extraterrestrial in origin; but so what?
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