Fortean Times, August 2000

Here be dragons: the scientific quest for extraterrestrial life
David Koerner & Simon LeVay
Oxford: Oxford University Press
hb, 19.99, pp272, illus, notes, index. ISBN 0-19 512852-4

A readable and admirably objective overview of the eternal question of whether we're alone in the universe. Here Be Dragons follows the same course as other recent books on the subject by covering the current thinking on how life developed here on Earth, the possibility of life elsewhere in the solar system, and the necessary conditions for planetary formation and biological emergence around other stars; then venturing into yet more speculative realms.

The inevitable chapter on UFOs is a brief but entertaining scamper into Dreamland territory, taking in the usual suspects: Glenn Campbell, Jacques Vallee, John Mack, Philip Klass. This is followed by a discussion of alternative biochemistries and artificial life, and a look at some on-the-edge cosmological theories including the perennial late-night favourite, Lee Smolin's Darwinian universes.

As with much of the best popular science writing, Koerner and LeVay - an astronomer and biologist respectively - present the theories through the theorists, whether they be SETI guru Frank Drake or the resident spin doctor at the Institute for Creation Research. Everyone gets a fair hearing, although the authors aren't worried about stirring it up when there's a good scientific feud going on, as with Steven Jay Gould and Simon Conway Morris still slugging it out over the Burgess Shale.

Unlike some other writers on the subject, Koerner and LeVay are more interested in the proper scientific (and fortean) approach of presenting the evidence rather than pursuing the case for or against. They also take account of the cultural resonances of the search for life beyond the Earth, drawing explicit parallels between religion and SETI, an area that they note often feels more like a movement than a field of science.

Here Be Dragons is comprehensive and provocative, taking in questions of biology, chemistry, astronomy and belief, and should be accessible to anyone. It is also the single best book I have yet read on the current state of the emerging and multi-disciplined area of cosmic biology.