'Captured by Aliens': serious fascination


"Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe," by Joel Achenbach. Simon & Schuster. 415 pages. $25.

The unfortunate title of this book might suggest it belongs on the pseudo-science shelf alongside tales of alien abductions and "ancient astronauts."

Not so. Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach has written a rambling, but lively, welcome and ultimately serious book exploring mankind's long fascination with the notion of alien life. ("Captivated by Aliens" would have said it better.) And, he reports from the front lines of real scientists' quest to find it.

His conclusion: Decades of earnest scientific effort have found not a solitary pip of credible evidence that there's anyone out there. No saucers. No tell-tale exhalations on distant planets. No undisputed fossils in Martian meteorites. No signals. Zip.

Not that it's hopeless.

Astronomers are finding more and more planets circling nearby stars. And there are billions of stars and billions of galaxies. Surely bacteria, if not life with the technology to communicate with us, would have evolved somewhere else in that crowd of worlds.

One of NASA's planetary landers or space telescopes might still find definitive signs of life in the Martian bedrock, beneath the ice on Europa, or on some speck of a planet circling a nearby star.

Maybe we just haven't pointed our antennas at the right star. Maybe the aliens have cable. Maybe asteroids, or gamma ray bursts, or nuclear wars keep knocking smart aliens down before they can phone in or come looking for us.

If life has happened elsewhere, Achenbach says, we may never find it. It may be too distant in time and space for any meaningful communications. And in any case, no one has yet found the slightest a trace of it. No one, that is, except the True Believers.

Some surveys suggest that more than half of Americans believe not only that aliens exist, but that they've been poking around our planet for 50 years, or maybe for millennia. For many, it's simply a hunch, or a maybe a conviction. For some, it's an obsession, a faith, a neurosis, or worse.

With admirable patience, Achenbach visits with the abducted, the molested and "Starseeds" --- aliens in human bodies. He listens to their stories and eleborate cosmologies. He attends their meetings, and hears their hopes and their anguish.

But in the end he concludes, "Everyone is groping for truth in an age of confusion, information overload and false prophets. ... What many people forget is how easily a data-poor topic can be infiltrated by preconceptions and biases and wishful thinking."

Like the best science writers aiming at a lay audience, Achenbach explores the central scientific issues thoroughly, without bogging down in science-speak.

His narrative sometimes threatens to become a Carl Sagan biography (or a Dave Barry column). But he tackles so many intriguing ideas, and engages so many interesting, brilliant and quirky people, that Sagan's Whack-a-Mole reappearances are forgiven.

His conclusions will tick off the True Believers. But so be it. Achenbach is relentlessly rational about our yearning for company in the vastness of the universe.

Frank D. Roylance covers science for The Sun. He bought his first telescope at the age of 50 and has been watching the sky ever since. He has never seen a UFO.

Pub Date: 11/07/99

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