Lisa Harvey-Smith, Aliens and other Worlds: true tales from our solar system and beyond, Thames & Hudson, September 2021, 108 pp., RRP $29.99 (hbk), ISBN 9781760761165
I couldn’t put this book down. Lisa Harvey-Smith is an astrophysicist and a professor at the University of New South Wales. She writes with flair and talent, and best of all, she brings to her writing a lively curiosity and a ready imagination. She begins her book of twenty-three short chapters with the question, ‘How did life on Earth begin?’ From here, she takes us through stories of evolution, extinction, and on into tales of microbes that can live deep inside volcanic environments or far under the Arctic ice—and on to the question of what life might look like on this planet long after humans have come and gone. And beyond our planet, what are the chances that there is life — and what might that be like?
It is fascinating to learn that the surface of spaceships must be sterilised before leaving our atmosphere, just in case they accidently seed other planets with our bacteria, thus confusing any search for true extra-terrestrial life. Harvey-Smith takes us further and further out into space, to planets beyond our own solar system, where sometimes a sun might be a pulsar that is a trillion times denser than lead, spinning at 10,000 revolutions per minute and releasing mighty pulses of energy 1000 times per second. There are possibly earth-like planets spinning round such stars.
Harvey-Smith has a chapter on UFOs and on the ongoing search for a signal from intelligent life in space. She imagines that possibly an alien intelligence surveyed our planet on their way past Earth a few million years ago, and have seen no signs of useful life or intelligence, and so missed us. In space, timing is everything—and if we are ever to get a good look at the unimaginably wider universe we will have to learn to travel at speeds close to the speed of light. Or live more or less forever (Did you know there is a deep ocean sponge that can live for 11,000 years?). Or, maybe, we could find another form of life out there willing to meet us halfway ….
This is a fascinating, gripping book that embraces the excitement of what we do know, and welcomes in the imagination when the limits of our knowledge confront us. We know so little, but thanks to science we do have a dim sense of how much there might be to discover. If your child is at all interested in the night sky, in physics, in knowledge, in imagination, then this is the book to put in front of them.
Recommended for young scientists from eight years to fourteen years.
Reviewed by Kevin Brophy