Joel Achenbach


The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2000).

The title of this book might suggest that it is just another comic account of a journey through the wilder shores of Ufology, but it's more ambitious than that. In fact, only one of its three sections is about UFOs and UFO believers; the remainder of the book concerns scientific attempts to grapple with the Big Question: Are We Alone? However, one thing that Achenbach makes abundantly clear is that the distinction between scientist and mystic is often a lot less obvious than either might wish. Almost all the True Believers in UFOs who appear in these pages insist that they are skeptics who demand proof of what they believe in, while there is no shortage of scientists who seem determined to force the evidence to support their belief in extraterrestrial life. The latter group includes the advocates of the famous 'worm' found in a Martian meteorite and, of course, John Mack, the Harvard professor of psychology who defends the reality (in some sense) of alien abductions. But the best-known scientist to have taken a passionate interest in the question of extraterrestrial intelligence is undoubtedly the late Carl Sagan, whose restless spirit haunts this book; his name appears continually throughout.

Unlike some, Sagan was always resolutely critical. He longed to find evidence for life outside the Earth and indeed may have done so, for he and a colleague did once pick up messages which could have come from the Milky Way, but they were never repeated. Sagan was sure there must be extraterrestrials but he was too honest, too much the scientist, to twist facts to support his views. However his enthusiasm for the quest led him into strange company at times. In a telling incident, a woman (a graduate in anthropology) who had seen one of his television programmes wrote to ask him, quite seriously, if he was himself an extraterrestrial.

This is a very funny book, but Achenbach's attitude to his subject is not flippant. He understands the psychological need that drives such astonishing numbers of people, especially in the USA, to believe they have been abducted by aliens or can channel messages from them. He even allows himself to be hypnotised to find out if he is himself an alien. Nevertheless, although he is sympathetic, he takes the belief that UFOs are extraterrestrial visitors to be a manifest delusion, and he correctly points out one of the worst flaws in this belief system, which is that the messages the aliens bring are so depressingly banal.

%T Captured by Aliens
%S The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe
%A Joel Achenbach
%I Simon & Schuster
%C New York
%D 1999
%G ISBN 0-684-84856-2
%P 415 pp

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