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SETI public: Relevant reviews in January, 2000 Scientific American


The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900

Michael J. Crowe
Dover Publications, Mineola, N.Y., 1999 ($19.95)

Crowe's aim is to show that "the question of extraterrestrial life,
rather than having arisen in the twentieth century, has been debated
almost from the beginning of recorded history." He deals only briefly
with writings before 1750 because they "have recently been capably
discussed by Steven J. Dick in his Plurality of Worlds: The Origins of
the Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant," and he stops
early in the 20th century because of "the vast quantity of materials
that had appeared by then" and also because of "my determination to base
this study on firsthand knowledge of the great majority of these items."

The extent of his firsthand knowledge is suggested by his bibliography,
listing 143 works published from 1584 to 1915, and his name index, which
has more than 1,000 entries. Crowe is a professor of philosophy of science
at the University of Notre Dame, and one would expect his discussion to
range over the philosophical, scientific and religious aspects of his
subject. It does. One learns what prominent people in each field have
said for or against extraterrestrial life.

It is, Crowe writes, a debate that "differs from most debates in the
history of science by the fact that it remains unresolved." The book is
a reprint of the edition published in 1986 by Cambridge University Press.

Origins of Life

Freeman Dyson
Cambridge University Press, 1999 ($12.95)

The plural of the title is purposeful: Dyson advances the hypothesis 
that life had a double origin. 

"Either life began only once, with the functions of replication and 
metabolism already present in rudimentary form and linked together from 
the beginning, or life began twice, with two separate kinds of creatures, 
one kind capable of metabolism without exact replication and the other 
kind capable of replication without metabolism." 

He sees reasons to favor the second possibility, with metabolizing 
creatures appearing first. 

Dyson is a renowned theoretical physicist (professor emeritus at the 
Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.) who offers an "apology 
for a physicist venturing into biology" by citing physicist Erwin 
Schrödinger's maxim that "some of us should venture to embark on a 
synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with second-hand and incomplete 
knowledge of some of them, and at the risk of making fools of themselves." 

In this new edition of a book first published in 1985, Dyson builds his 
argument with characteristic skill and clarity. He views his hypothesis as
"useful only insofar as it may suggest new experiments."