BOOK REVIEW: The Contact Paradox, by Keith Cooper

BOOK REVIEW: The Contact Paradox, by Keith CooperTitle: The Contact Paradox: Challenging our Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by Keith Cooper
Published by Bloomsbury SIGMA
Published: January 21st 2020
Genres: Science
Pages: 336
Format: ARC
Source: Netgalley

Inside the difficult questions about humanity's search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
What will happen if humanity makes contact with another civilization on a different planet? In The Contact Paradox, space journalist Keith Cooper tackles some of the myths and assumptions that underlie SETI--the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
In 1974 a message was beamed towards the stars by the giant Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico, a brief blast of radio waves designed to alert extraterrestrial civilizations to our existence. Of course, we don't know if such civilizations really exist. But for the past six decades a small cadre of researchers have been on a quest to find out, as part of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
The silence from the stars is prompting some researchers, inspired by the Arecibo transmission, to transmit more messages into space, in an effort to provoke a response from any civilizations out there that might otherwise be staying quiet. However, the act of transmitting raises troubling questions about the process of contact. We look for qualities such as altruism and intelligence in extraterrestrial life, but what do these mean to humankind? Can we learn something about our own history when we explore what happens when two civilizations come into contact? Finally, do the answers tell us that it is safe to transmit, even though we know nothing about extraterrestrial life, or as Stephen Hawking argued, are we placing humanity in jeopardy by doing so?
In The Contact Paradox, author Keith Cooper looks at how far SETI has come since its modest beginnings, and where it is going, by speaking to the leading names in the field and beyond. SETI forces us to confront our nature in a way that we seldom have before--where did we come from, where are we going, and who are we in the cosmic context of things? This book considers the assumptions that we make in our search for extraterrestrial life, and explores how those assumptions can teach us about ourselves.

I am not a science-minded person and a lot of upper-level math boggles my mind, but I do love reading about science, especially space and astrophysics and what lies beyond our atmosphere. When I had the opportunity to read The Contact Paradox by Keith Cooper, I jumped on it, because I love the idea of examining what it means to achieve contact with extraterrestrials.

I really loved how Cooper presented his argument, circled back around to clarify and reiterate, and also used pop culture and science fiction references to illustrate some of the ideas about which he wrote. It’s not an easy book to read, but it is accessible and is not full of unexplained jargon so that a casual science reader like myself could pick it up, understand the concepts about which he wrote, and enjoy it. I think writing about a very specialized, specific field in a way that makes it accessible to people on the other side of the field is a difficult task, and I thoroughly enjoyed this from beginning to end.

Two quotes (taken from an unfinished copy, so they may be different in the final versions) really stuck to me that I ended up writing them down in my notebook illustrate the concept of the Contact Paradox:

… maybe the civilisations that last are the ones that keep their heads down and out of trouble. On the other hand […], maybe what other civilisations are looking for as evidence that we are stepping up and becoming a good galactic civilisation is a willingness to reach out, and maybe there are implications if we choose not to. This is the dichotomy at the heart of the Contact Paradox. It is a maze of assumptions, cherished beliefs and few facts.

SETI [the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] is not just a search for aliens. It’s also a search for ourselves. We project our hopes and fears, our history and our expectations about the future of humanity onto what we think extraterrestrial civilisations might be like. The stars are a mirror and, when we gaze up at them, if we look closely enough, we see our reflection staring back. Study that reflection and we may learn something about ourselves.

The concept of extraterrestrial life is big in science fiction, and when I taught science fiction, I always liked to include bits like this (not so eloquently put, but I wanted to get my students thinking about what extraterrestrial life in fiction meant). Often times, in fiction, when characters go out exploring within the narrative laid out for them, they’re not always just searching for something else or the other. A lot of the times they’re also searching for themselves and their meaning within the greater context of their world, and the struggle in searching for themselves is that to themselves they must find definition. Who am I? Who are we? Who do I want to be? These and similar questions are also faced in the context of what it means to actually seek out or receive communication and visits from other planets and whether or not that’s possible in our lifetimes or any near-future lifetimes. And if it isn’t possible, then what? Then who are we?

Thank you to Bloomsbury for a gifted digital ARC! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn Harkup

BOOK REVIEW: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn HarkupTitle: Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by Kathryn Harkup
Published by Bloomsbury SIGMA
Published: February 6th 2018
Genres: Non-Fiction, History, Science
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased

The year 1818 saw the publication of one of the most influential science-fiction stories of all time. Frankenstein: Or, Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley had a huge impact on gothic horror and science fiction genres. The name Frankenstein has become part of our everyday language, often used in derogatory terms to describe scientists who have overstepped a perceived moral line. But how did a 19-year-old woman with no formal education come up with the idea for an extraordinary novel such as Frankenstein? The period of 1790-1820 saw huge advances in our understanding of electricity and physiology. Sensational science demonstrations caught the imagination of the general public, and newspapers were full of tales of murderers and resurrectionists.

It is unlikely that Frankenstein would have been successful in his attempts to create life back in 1818. However, advances in medical science mean we have overcome many of the stumbling blocks that would have thwarted his ambition. We can resuscitate people using defibrillators, save lives using blood transfusions, and prolong life through organ transplants--these procedures are nowadays considered almost routine. Many of these modern achievements are a direct result of 19th century scientists conducting their gruesome experiments on the dead.

Making the Monster explores the science behind Shelley's book. From tales of reanimated zombie kittens to electrical experiments on human cadavers, Kathryn Harkup examines the science and scientists that influenced Mary Shelley and inspired her most famous creation, Victor Frankenstein. While, thankfully, we are still far from being able to recreate Victor's "creature," scientists have tried to create the building blocks of life, and the dream of creating life-forms from scratch is now tantalizingly close.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my favorite books of all time, and definitely in my list of top ten classics. So when I saw Kathryn Harkup’s Making the Monster beginning to make its rounds on Twitter and Instagram, I added it to my TBR and wishlist and waited for a good sale because based on the cover and title alone, I wanted it for my own collection.

I love literary histories like these that give the reader an insight into the creation of the novel while also providing context for the scientific aspects of Frankenstein. Sometimes I felt that the structure of the book could be better managed, but overall, I thought that the back and forth between Mary Shelley’s life and the real-life science that inspired the science in her novel worked effectively. Harkup’s book is incredibly well researched, and her meticulous attention to detail adds so much to the experience of reading this. For someone like me who isn’t wholly aware of a lot of medical and science history, the chapters focusing on the medical and science history were the most chilling and most engaging, especially the chapter regarding autopsies and the lucrative business surrounding the digging up of cadavers to sell to institutions of higher learning.

The main issue I had with the book were the biographical sections involving Percy and Mary Shelley because a good portion of those sections read as if they had been poorly edited or were a draft that could have easily been tightened up or finished off. I think Harkup’s strengths lie in scientific writing that is readily based upon set-in-stone information, whereas biographies do require a little more finesse in terms of narrative structure. For example, a lot of sentences in the biography sections ended with prepositional phrases and included digits instead of spelled out numerals for numbers under 100. Several sentences contained dangling participles, and I had to reread the sentences several times to be sure what the “it” was in the second half of the sentence. These are my editorial quibbles from my days editing student essays, so my reading experience is jarred when I notice these things in published works.

Overall, the science and medical histories and the biographies in Making the Monster are accessible to a variety of readers, whether or not they are familiar with Shelley’s Frankenstein. If you’re interested in the sometimes gruesome practices in the history of medicine and/or enjoy literary biographies, I recommend checking this one out!