Astrogeeking-out with Adam Frank’s Little Book of Aliens

I’ve yet to meet an astrobiology book I haven’t liked. Adam Frank’s The Little Book of Aliens is no exception, though my appreciation for it deviates from that norm: I didn’t just like it, I loved it. It felt like sitting down with a very smart (in mind and mouth) friend who had loads of exciting information to share about space, and physics. As much accurate information exists about aliens, UAP/UFOs, and astrobiology, there is an equal amount which is inferentially and speculatively inaccurate. It’s part of what makes books like Frank’s so important in an era where misinformation is a click away.

The hallmark of Frank’s writing is that he makes immensely complex concepts and connections easily accessible. I found myself making notes while reading just so that I could remember the specific way he worded a concept or defined a process. It is this breathtaking clarity that, for any young adult who might pick up the book at a formative time, could have career-shaping effects. Frank is among the ranks of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Stephen Hawking, and Carl Sagan who make theoretical science so cool. Frank’s distinctive tone and style make it so that The Little Book of Aliens is what would happen if national fictitious treasure, Harry Dresden, were an astrophysicist who looked “to the skies” instead of at paranormal crime fighting.

The book starts from the assumption that certain premises are possible, until they are met with specific logic or theories that further or foreclose their possibility. Frank dives into a variety of methods of interstellar travel for example, including hyper drives, light sails, cryosleep, wormholes, and generation ships as potential ways that interstellar alien travel might take place. Rather than dismiss these ideas as the work of science fiction, he keeps questions open-ended if there are no scientific theories that shut down the idea outright. He treads where others do and states what would be required for these ideas to be true and how our science would have to catch up in order to render them true.

Frank also delves into abstract mathematical thinking as it relates to Einstein’s theory of relativity, before giving quantum mechanics a high-five en route to explaining exoplanets, ocean and snowball worlds, as well as ocean moons. He also talks about the very cool science involved in finding potential life forms (biosignatures and technosignatures, among others) in ways that illuminate astrobiology for the rest of us. If you’re looking for another great author on the topic, that Frank also highlights in his book, check out Avi Loeb’s books: Interstellar: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Our Future in The Stars and Extraterrestrial : The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth.

Much of Frank’s book hypothesizes from a framework of scientific theories, demonstrating the way to wonder-with in ways that speculate but do so from facts. Among the questions he tarries with are: What if we found aliens and they could only exist in salt water on an ocean world? What if aliens have found a way to genetically engineer themselves into trees and “upload” their consciousness into trees such that a planet would become a sentient being (the planetary forest theory)? What would a million-year-old civilization be like to have survived that long?

It would be easy to dismiss topics like this as of minimal importance in the everyday because talking about aliens won’t pay the bills (astrobiologists aside). Frank highlights however, that scientific discoveries in this field would change the way we function in the everyday. He goes further to emphasize the big picture of human civilization, its role in creating the climate crisis with technology and what discovering intelligent life would mean. He summarizes that “It would show us that such a thing—the kind of civilization we need to become—can exist. That would be a big relief. It would give us a lot of hope” (p.191).

I cannot think of a better reason to immerse yourself in this informative, at times laugh-out-loud hilarious, occasionally irreverent, and right-on-time volume to help sort through the noise of all things aliens for the solace in, and clarity of what’s theoretically and scientifically possible.

Charlie C.
Programmer & Library Assistant, Main Library

Charlie loves to read across genres. His favourite part of working at the library is connecting people with resources to help better their lives and experiences; knowledge is a path to empowerment. Accordingly, he is interested in reading and borrowing adult non-fiction books related to almost everything. He enjoys reading about business, self-improvement, environmental sciences and spirituality/esotericism. Books that help ask big questions and invoke equally big wonder are among his favourites. Charlie’s other hobbies include writing, hiking, photography and cooking.