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The Contact Paradox: Challenging Our Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

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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.

336 pages, Hardcover

Published January 21, 2020

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Keith Cooper

8 books2 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 46 reviews
Profile Image for Grumpus.
498 reviews240 followers
August 13, 2020
Should we be search for ET? What if they don't know we're here and we alert a non-altruistic race?

"The essence of “The Contact Paradox” is that if aliens do come calling, and if they’re anything like us, humanity is in trouble. The encounter would likely not go well, if history is any guide. First contacts between wildly varying human societies have frequently been characterized by violence, exploitation, slavery, and sometimes genocide."

This is the most comprehensive book on this topic and covers the search history, how we search, how we could be found, and what a discovery could be like.

The takeaway is, be careful of what you ask for!
Profile Image for Tiger.
316 reviews4 followers
December 3, 2019
A very interesting, very well researched book about the possibility of making contact with an intelligent alien civilization. The author not only takes us down the path of what humans would need to do scientifically to try and make contact (it's a lot) but he also spends a good portion of the book walking us through the broader issue of "Is it even a good idea?"

He discusses what exactly does "intelligence" encompass and is altruism solely a human trait- kind of an important topic wouldn't you say. Cooper delves into the sociological and ethical issues of this as well as how risk assessment needs to be huge part of it. We learn about SETI, METI, Dyson spheres, the Tall Tower concept, self replicating probes, and of course, the Fermi Paradox........If they are indeed out there, then why haven't they made contact ?

The bottom line is that scientists have discovered thousands of exoplanets in our galaxy with more being discovered every day. If contact is coming any time soon, we as a species, need to be totally prepared. A fascinating read.

Thanks to Keith Cooper, Bloomsburg Sigma and Net galley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Faith Jones.
Author 2 books47 followers
September 24, 2021
Presented in an as accessible way as possible, essays for a general audience, this is the book of an academic scientist who has gathered everything he has learned that might be relevant to the subject of contact with an intelligent species that has evolved outside the goldfish bowl of Earth. He cites academic papers and sources of influence but spares us the mathematics of encryption-reducing algorithms, if you see what I mean. The book draws upon the work of other thinkers in the field and, you have to understand, much of this premeditation on contact only be theoretical because that’s all you can play with until the parameters are quickly narrowed by the event actually happening (…waiting, waiting).

Apart from being a sensible repository of scientific knowledge, the author frequently quotes science fiction, which has always served us by predicting developments and scenarios we might encounter in the future. I think this is therefore a valuable research tool for science fiction writers to help them get their imagined realities straight. For example, I gave a favourable review to a novel a few years ago which included an idea about space transmission archaeology (catching up with broadcast signals hundreds of years later and either recording them or taking tourists who wanted to experience human history ‘live’). Having read The Contact Paradox, I’m not gong to have to write to that author and pass on the downer that the signal would have faded by degradation due to electron loss, in obeyance of the inverse square law, if you’re trying to sample it as it sweeps past. However, this book also suggests that by keeping pace with the signal (almost impossible), you could form its energy in the detector crucible for longer, which could allow lossy capture after all. It would take an enormous expenditure of energy to go fast enough to record an old broadcast hundreds of light years out though, so don’t expect any aliens to be trying this.

Sometimes this book shows us that human budget holders’ stubborn prejudices or preferences for less effective technologies in the field of contact may be holding us back, e.g. communication of information across large-scale distances is proven to be clearer using lasers, in comparison to sending the same data using radio waves. It also examines ‘cost’ in the resources of time and energy that another civilisation would need to expend to contact us, i.e. the other side could conclude that attempting to identify themselves to anyone far away is too wasteful.

It brings us up to date with news of the mini-light sails that private enterprise intends to send to our nearest planetary systems, the upscaling of detection and data processing capacity, then speculates on whether Moore’s Law will hold true for long or how artificial intelligence and quantum processing speeds could lead to a merging between the biological and the machine. This is slowly happening with pacemakers, hearing aids etc., so why not amplify the brain too? Maybe because it’s creepy? Hang on – wasn’t there some old warning about hubris?

Some voices in the text don’t want humans to make contact because that would invite threats, then others point out that the enormous distances involved probably mean contact would be an information only exchange, so the prospect of a dangerous physical visit becomes vanishingly unrealistic. Personally, I would go for it because the next stage of our development is surely the expansion of our perception to a galactic scale and successful (repeated, verified) contact would make us perform that leap overnight.

In short, the book is a good primer for anyone who would like to learn about the previous seven decades of history in exploring this topic: the discovery of pulsars, then Drake, the formation of SETI, ‘the Wow! Signal’, Planet Hunters (detecting dimming) and then through to what we could do in the near future, such as looking for life in the oceans of moons within the Sol system. Trying to steer a good line in common sense, The Contact Paradox stays realistic and reminds its audience that nothing has been discovered conclusively yet, the distances and energies required are obstacles and that civilisations and species do burn out, suggesting maybe we’ve already missed the party. Contact would be the greatest thing to happen in billions of people’s lives, but a realistic prospect exists that we may be fated to stay alone in an unimaginably large, cold universe. Let’s hope not. Anyway, there’s Alone and alone. Has anyone asked the dolphins?
Profile Image for Cav.
625 reviews77 followers
October 1, 2021
The Contact Paradox was a somewhat interesting read.

Author Keith Cooper is a science journalist and editor specializing in astrophysics, cosmology, astrobiology, SETI, and planetary science.

Keith Cooper:


I am admittedly a life-long sci-fi fan, and a fan of books about extraterrestrials, alien life, and interstellar exploration. This one seemed to tick those boxes, so I put it on my list as soon as I came across it.
The topics Cooper covers make for interesting subject matter. He mentions the "altruism assumption" early on here; cautioning the reader on the potential motivation of extraterrestrial visitors.

The book is presented as a long-form series of musings on extraterrestrial life, colonization, and space travel. Cooper takes a few tangents into conventional psychics, astronomy, and other related fields here.
There is a good foreword; written by Stephen Baxter.

Sadly, despite fielding some very interesting subject matter, I found much of the writing here to be on the side of long-winded and verbose... I am big on how readable a book is, and this will sadly see Cooper's writing penalized a bit here.

Cooper seems to be excited about interstellar travel and colonizing other worlds. It is an exciting concept, to be sure. However, unless humanity makes some monumental scientific innovations or inventions, it will likely remain a pipe dream for quite a long time...
Human interstellar travel will be unlikely/extremely challenging for a few reasons. Namely; large amounts of biologically damaging cosmic radiation, the harmful effects of zero-g on the body, and the logistical challenges associated with life support systems for any potential space traveler.

Some more of what is covered here includes:
• The intelligence of dolphins
Theory of mind.
• The Drake Equation
Ray Kurzweil's "Singularity"
• The Kardashev Scale
Dyson spheres
• The Fermi paradox
• The Doomsday Clock


************************

Although the writing here covers an interesting topic, I found Cooper's telling of it to be fairly dry...
3 stars for this one.
Profile Image for Peter Pereira.
125 reviews1 follower
April 6, 2020
Excellent book. This could be the very best book on the search of extraterrestrial intelligence out there. One of the few books that really puts the difficulty in finding/contacting in perspective. While the author could have turned this into a SETI fan-book, he didn't. Everything is well researched, with a wide base of knowledge outlined before tackling the problem at hand. Worth reading.
Profile Image for Chad Guarino.
215 reviews35 followers
January 1, 2020
The Contact Paradox is an interesting take in SETI's search for extraterrestrial life in the universe, detailing not only the agency's efforts and new discoveries, but also the inherent problems humanity would face as a species if we were to find something and be unprepared for how to handle it on a cultural level. The books covers a large variety of topics, including Dyson Spheres, Earth like planets, extinction events, and the science of black holes.

While this is a highly scientific book, I was appreciative that it was written by Keith Cooper in terms I could fully understand, and as such it was never a chore to read. For those with an interest in learning more about what's possible in the vastness of the universe, this is a great pick up.

**I was given a copy of this book by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks to Bloomsbury USA**
Profile Image for Doctor Moss.
461 reviews17 followers
August 15, 2020
This is a book that I think is very good at what it does, but it just doesn’t do what I was looking for.

The premise — examining assumptions behind our search for extraterrestrial intelligence — really appeals to me. I had found Jim Al-Khalili’s collection of scientific and speculative articles on the same subject (Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life) terrific in its questioning of some of those assumptions. So I was looking to get more perspectives and maybe go deeper.

And some of the early chapters more than met my hopes. Cooper challenges the assumption that alien civilizations would act “altruistically’ enough to spend resources on sending detectable signals (radio or otherwise). And he challenges the assumption that we could expect the evolution of intelligence itself (at least of the relevant type — technological, communicative intelligence) to be common where life originates at all.

The focus of the book changed a bit as Cooper began to examine such things as the detectability of intelligent, technological civilizations. And some of this is very good. For example, he discusses the “Arecibo Myth.” Researchers sometimes use the Arecibo radio telescope as a kind of benchmark — if we sent a signal, a relatively modest amount of information with some minimal recognizability as coming from an intelligent source, how far away could an alien civilization be and still detect our signal?

Calculations and included factors vary, giving a range of distances between Frank Drake’s original estimate of 10,500 light years and Seth Shostak’s more recent 400 light years. If Shostak is right, there’s little chance of a signal transmitted from Arecibo being detected by an alien civilization, even if such civilizations are abundant. Likewise, there’s little chance of our detecting a signal, using the Arecibo telescope, from an Arecibo-like telescope on an alien world. In order for detection to be feasible, we really have to count on the alien civilization possessing either immensely powerful transmitters or immensely powerful receivers, and of course the willingness to expend the resources necessary to build them.

This is setting aside what information may be contained in such a signal or how decipherable it might be.

But traditional SETI of that sort (i.e., detection of radio signals) may be anachronistic. After all, our own communications systems have moved on from radio to other media. So Cooper moves along to more contemporary efforts at detecting biosignatures (e.g., the presence of atmospheric gases like oxygen and methane that may indicate the presence of life) and technosignatures.

Technosignatures of course are more relevant to potential detection and contact with intelligent, technological civilizations. The detection of biosignatures that truly confirmed the presence of life on an alien world would be momentous in itself, but the detection and confirmation of technosignatures would be mind-boggling — the true “We are not alone” moment.

When we talk about detecting technosignatures, keeping in mind that the hypothetical civilizations we want to detect would be both alien and incredibly advanced with respect to us (given that we are likely only in the early stages of a technological civilization) we have to allow our imaginations free reign. Thus talk of Dyson Spheres, Dyson Trees, other “Megastructures,” the taming of black holes, and on and on. But the likelihood of our getting any of this right seems infinitesimally small — after all, we are not the aliens and we have no idea what a technological civilization, even one very much like our own, would develop over the next million or so years.

There’s nothing wrong with exploring different avenues of speculation, like Dyson Spheres and tamed black holes, but, as I said, the chances of getting such things right seem remote. I think the book lost some of my interest here, just on that very ground — that we literally don’t know what we are talking about.

I will mention, though, one approach I wasn’t aware of and that sounds especially interesting. In the final chapter of the book, on 21st Century SETI, Cooper discusses an approach led by Lucianne Walkowicz. Given the uncertainties surrounding what kinds of things we should be trying to detect by way of technosignatures, let’s not look for something specific. Instead let’s look for something “weird” — something that suggests artificiality because it doesn’t fit what we expect of the universe. Of course, much of what appears “weird” (fast gamma ray bursts, etc.) turn out to be natural phenomena that we just didn’t understand yet. But I think the potential genius in Walkowicz’s approach is the acknowledgement that we don’t know specifically what to look for but we do know that we are looking for something that doesn’t fit.

And we don’t necessarily need new observations and new data to conduct such a search. Existing sky surveys have already produced a wealth of data to analyze for anomalies.

Toward the end of Cooper’s discussion, I began to wonder what exactly the “paradox” is that the title is referring to. We do get it, also toward the end of the book. The paradox is really between our willingness to search, and to put resources behind a search, for extraterrestrial intelligence and our reticence to actually contact and communicate with any intelligence we may find. As Cooper puts it, “This is the Contact Paradox. We search the Universe for evidence of extraterrestrial life to make contact with others, for humanity to be able to share the Universe with others. Yet we find ourselves in a position of not being confident about whether we should try and make contact.”

Just as we have no idea what technologies (if any) an intelligent alien civilization might develop, we have no idea what their motivations might be in spending resources to detect and contact other civilizations. The specter of alien invasion may sound like 1950s SciFi movie stuff, but, again, our imaginations are unequal to the task of discerning the motivations of creatures we know exactly nothing about.

Although that tension is interesting and important, again, it diverges from what at least I hoped I was getting into with the book. I thought I was getting into a discussion of how to think about and how not to think about what we mean by “life,” “intelligence,” “technology,” and other key concepts involved in SETI.

Cooper isn’t responsible for my expectations, so I’m happy to recommend the book for what it is.

I’ll also mention (for anyone wanting to pursue something along the lines of what I was looking for) not only the book edited by Jim Al-Khalili (Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life), but also another collection edited by Chris Impey (Talking About Life: Conversations on Astrobiology). Both books contain fascinating discussions on those questions about the concepts of “life” (especially the Impey book), “intelligence,” and “technology.”
Profile Image for Richard Archambault.
428 reviews10 followers
November 30, 2021
I wanted to like this book as it's about the kinds of topics I'm interested in (cosmology & physics), but I was annoyed at several things. 3.5 bumped down to 3. The things that annoyed me the most: the superficial use of the example of the Aztecs and Moctezuma, the reliance on Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed which has many problems of its own, and the part on the "Doomsday Argument" which I frankly find ridiculous, no matter how "sound" the mathematics might appear to be. So, these annoyances reduced my enjoyment of the book. Still, lots of ideas to mull over in this one.
Profile Image for Jenny Donley.
4 reviews
March 22, 2022
The Contact Paradox is a brilliant scientific and philosophical exploration of the questions of whether or not we are alone in the cosmos, what we should (and shouldn’t) do to find out, and what we should do if we are/aren’t. While based in astrophysics, it is presented in a manner that can be thoroughly consumed by anyone with an interest in the stars, the planets, and ET.
Profile Image for Jesse Dickerson.
15 reviews1 follower
September 19, 2021
Very good read! This book does an excellent job of explaining how our minds work when it comes to theorizing about the existence of extraterrestrials!
Profile Image for Leonardo.
43 reviews
January 1, 2020
I enjoyed this book quite a bit. It was written to cover a technical topic but in a manner that was understandable and not too dense and in the weeds with terms or math that would lose the reader. I saw a preview copy with layout, typos, etc, but adjusting for that and assuming that those issues will be edited in final copy, I see the writing style, grammar etc as very good. In fact In several places I liked the writers ability to eloquently and elegantly present ideas that helped visualizing concepts.

I received this book as an ARC from Netgalley and am grateful for the access and the opportunity to provide feedback. I hope the book is successful in finding a good audience.
Profile Image for Calvin.
130 reviews1 follower
May 10, 2020
A polymath's delight. Physics, biology, astronomy, geology, sociology, pop culture -- the scope of the discussion in this book is great and tickles several spots in the brain.
Profile Image for Allen Adams.
517 reviews28 followers
February 11, 2020
https://www.themaineedge.com/tekk/is-...

Are we alone in the universe?

Simple math would seem to indicate that we are not; what are the odds that Earth is alone among an infinite number of planets in producing intelligent life? And yet, we have yet to encounter these other intelligences in any verifiable way.

So … where is everyone?

That’s part of the question being tackled by Keith Cooper’s new book “The Contact Paradox: Challenging our Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” It’s a look at the decades-long history of SETI – the Search for Extraterrestrial Life – and a deep dive into some of the presuppositions that we as humans have placed on that search. Through conversations with leading experts and long digressions into not just hard science, but fields such as sociology, anthropology and psychology, Cooper considers what it means to want to talk to the stars – and what it might mean were they ever to talk back.

Back in 1974, the giant Arecibo radio telescope beamed a signal out into the void, a brief explosion of radio waves intended to announce humanity’s presence to any extraterrestrial civilizations that might be out there listening. As of yet, we haven’t heard from anyone – but does that mean they aren’t there.

For decades now, a small but dedicated group of researchers has devoted their research efforts to SETI, seeking to make some sort of contact with any alien beings that might be out there somewhere. And yes, they haven’t found anything yet, but the realities of the universe’s vastness – more than a hundred billion stars in just the Milky Way, to say nothing of the other galaxies beyond it – mean that the likelihood of quick success is, well … infinitesimal.

But that doesn’t stop them from trying. There are scientists who seek to transmit even more messages out into the beyond in hopes of capturing the attention of those who have thus far remained quiet.

Cooper’s book addresses both sides of this particular quest. Yes, there’s a chance that we could make contact with a highly advanced civilization whose knowledge could lead to a quantum leap forward in our own society’s development. But who’s to say that those we contact would have out best interest in mind?

Our tendency is to anthropomorphize, to endow these hypothetical ETs with our own characteristics. But the truth is that the odds are stacked against them being, well … anything like us. The assumption of altruism is a big one – one that notables like Stephen Hawking himself have warned us against making. There are huge questions on both sides of the debate, but we’d do well to consider our own history – for instance, what has tended to happen here when two civilizations make contact for the first time? (Hint: It’s rarely good.)

“The Contact Paradox” is a fascinating look at the history of SETI and the possibilities inherent to extraterrestrial contact. What Cooper does that is so engaging is address multiple aspects of the issue. Sure, we’d love to come down on the side of someone like Carl Sagan, who believed that an extraterrestrial broadcast might well contain a sort of Encyclopedia Galactica, a collection of alien knowledge that could serve to elevate humanity. But consider the resources necessary to make and maintain such a broadcast – can we truly expect that sort of pure altruism? And what if we’re doing nothing but announcing ourselves as an easy target for a more predatory type of civilization? Our own history shows plenty of examples of what happens when a more advanced civilization encounters a more primitive one.

Obviously, it’s a moot point until contact is made – we can’t possibly know what is out there until that happens. What’s so intriguing about “The Contact Paradox” is the way Cooper juxtaposes direct conversations about the mechanics of SETI with thoughts about human nature and how that might (or might not) translate into our engagement with aliens should we ever establish communication.

“The Contact Paradox: Challenging our Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” is the kind of book that anyone intrigued about what (or who) might be out there among the stars needs to read. It’s a smart and concise look at SETI, the people devoted to it and the potential consequences of its success.

Are we alone in the universe? We may never know the answer, but there will always be those committed to asking the question.
Profile Image for Louis.
214 reviews2 followers
July 26, 2020
The Contact Paradox: Challenging Our Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by Keith Cooper is a fresh look at this interesting topic.

I’ve read SETI books before and those that have tried to answer the Fermi paradox. It asks, if the universe is full of alien intelligences, where are they? This new book was published recently (2019) so after it touched on the history of SETI of which I was familiar with, it goes on to question many of our modern assumptions in this field.

The book starts off on the role of altruism. The author nicely shows the high energy requirements needed to search for and broadcast signals. One needs to ask, is it worth it? We humans are curious, but what if aliens have curiosity but it’s balanced towards expecting a reasonable return?

Explored within this one topic the author describes nicely the problems with our assumptions. Is a sense of kinship required to keep two civilizations pouring resources into an effort to talk? Do we transmit the entirety of the internet as some have suggested, but then leaving us nothing to trade with? If the aliens (very likely) are far ahead of us, what do we have to offer them? Would a million-year-old species bother to look for and chat with “children?” In addition, the “fact” that our earliest signals have reached 80 light years outwards means less after he nicely explains how signal strength drops dramatically due to inverse square laws. Honestly no one is going to pick those up with any technology we would understand.

He tackles related topics with the same focus as he does altruism. Intelligence, does evolution push towards it or are we a fluke? Is earth rare, or is it a model throughout the universe? Is our search methodology the best way to find others? Some are now looking for alien artifacts, or altered star systems. Is humanity’s history of spreading over the globe a model that others will follow in venturing out into the galaxy? Is there a filter that prevents expansion? Some have wondered at natural sterilizing events, or species always destroying themselves before venturing out. What are we missing to explain the silence? Are we doing SETI wrong?

This is a book that of course has no answers, but the questions are wonderful. He reminds us that we make a mistake assuming that aliens would be like us in behavior. It doesn’t make me question my support of SETI. If we detect one signal, it will be worth it and will rank as one of the greatest if not the greatest discoveries of all time. But the book does push us to question what we tell ourselves. We must keep an open mind and continually self-check our assumptions and be willing to try new methods. This could lead us to finding true aliens that are unlike us.
Profile Image for Stacy Mintzer.
9 reviews1 follower
October 27, 2020
Absolutely mind blowing. I have rarely read anything so fascinating. Most of us spend our lives thinking about the most mundane activities. Meanwhile, a handful of people contemplate larger ideas. Cooper's book is about the people who look up at the starts and keep looking. He brings us questions we should we all be pondering. Are we alone in the universe? If we are, why not? If we aren't, why haven't other civilizations contacted us yet?

As the author reminds us, a million or even a hundred million years may seem like an eternity. Yet this is more than long enough for a civilization to have developed the capacity to colonize their home galaxy and beyond. Each chapter proceeds from this premise and then considers varied points of view. The reader is given concepts well worth understanding from the Fermi Paradox to the Rare Earth hypothesis and forced to examine them in great detail.

Are there mass extinctions awaiting us every 26 million years when we pass the Milky Way galaxy's dense midplane? Can we harness the power of a Black Hole? What is it like to design a clock that will still be readable in ten thousand years? Will we ever create a Dyson Sphere?

This book is for anyone who wants to contemplate the big picture and see beyond the end of your nose. I took it out from the local library. A month later and I'm still thinking about the questions the author poses. Thank you, Mr. Cooper.
Profile Image for Randal.
947 reviews12 followers
May 3, 2020
A dense work ... I'm not sure why this surprised me because a book on SETI by an author who is serious about astrophysics & the like was bound to be. Maybe because I'm used to much lighter pop-science fare? Maybe because there can be no definitive answer on this unless we actually find intelligent aliens -- at which point, if it happens, this entire debate will be a curiosity at best. Until and unless that happens, it's impossible to prove a no from lack of evidence. The best one could manage would be to point out statistical possibilities. Of which this book has many, on both sides of the equation.

At any rate, Cooper very methodically takes apart and examines all a great many, perhaps all of the current theories on whether we are alone in the universe and how differing answers might change things. The section on the ethics of trying to contact ET without knowing if it's Speilberg's cute alien or the one with teeth and egg sacs from Alien is one of the more interesting chapters, as it deals with a more immediate issue ... once we've attracted the attention of An Alien, it's rather too late to decide if we should try ... .

A stronger recommend for the book if SETI is a major area of interest for you instead of just something you've heard about. For me ... 3 to 3.5 stars (that may host planets with intelligent aliens on them).
Profile Image for John Folk-Williams.
Author 3 books7 followers
March 6, 2020
Keith Cooper’s The Contact Paradox is a brilliant probing of the motives and technologies behind the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). If you’re like me, you might know that SETI has been going on for sixty years and that no signals have turned up pointing to an advanced civilization. And not much more. You probably remember Carl Sagan’s Contact, or more likely the film version, with its unforgettable image of Jodie Foster listening with headphones to a radio telescope signal. This is one of those science books that offers essential background for SFF readers.

The Contact Paradox not only provides a fascinating history of the technology of SETI research but also looks deeply at the basic assumptions that underlie this quest. Why do we assume that an alien civilization would invest considerable resources to beam messages across the stars to unknown listeners? What is the nature of intelligence that might try to communicate with us? What are our own motives?

See the full review at: SciFi Mind
Profile Image for Jorge Mola.
69 reviews8 followers
November 25, 2022
I liked it (didn't love it tho). It is more than just the paradox. It's an explanation of the complex situation of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. I found interesting, although is kind of obvious when we think about it, that all that we know for extraterrestrial life it's based on life and intelligence on Earth (we have no other data point) so always when we talk about ETs we need to know a thing or two about chemestry, biology and our own social behavior.

The search is kind of complex and although I do not share the point of view of the author about the urgency, I do think it is interesting and for sure the mere search will bring development and it could potentially expand human life beyond our expectations. Maybe we are not destined to last for that long so maybe if we hit a big filter that would be ok... But if you are not like me and think that would not be ok, then it is as the author says: It's urgent!

The big takeway for me is that we will never be ready for the contact. So we better just try to prepare to a possible rough ride. That needs to include politics so we can act as a global society.
123 reviews
January 30, 2022
Initially thought I'd give it a lower rating due to irritation with the chapter called "Interstellar Twitter" which kept building up methods of communication only to point out the flaws and why they wouldn't work. However, this is a really well written book that is surprisingly easy to read, and gives enough detail for you to understand the science without bogging the reader down in the actual calculations and details. As someone who was only familiar with Radio SETI, it provides a good picture of other technologies that are in use or could be employed to discover alien life. It also has a very good grasp on some of the philosophical and psychological aspects of seeking out alien life, and both the later chapters about doomsday and on METI (us sending messages out) are very thought provoking. Wish that the theoretical science and speculative science fiction elements were a bit more clearly distinguished from each other, but a good read overall that covers the topic of potential alien life from all angles.
Profile Image for Zosia.
385 reviews
January 14, 2023
(3.5) This was a thoughtful and fascinating look at the different reasons we should/shouldn't try to contact aliens (and vice versa). Reasons like - aliens might not be trying to contact us because it's expensive and not worth the time (you need to be somewhat altruistic if you're an advanced civilization and want to signal to lesser nations).

The author also invokes the dark forest theory, which means that no one's talking to us because it's dangerous to give up your location in an unknown universe.

Everything was well researched & scientifically backed, underlined with a call to action to SETI to shake things up.

For some reason, it was sometimes a drag to read. I can't explain it because the writing was fine and the topic was thrilling, but my eyes glazed a lot, even though this is a topic in my wheelhouse. That's the only reason for the 3.5. The content is there! And it got me thinking in a new way.
Profile Image for Benjamin.
92 reviews
July 29, 2020
Normally I would stop reading a disappointing book early on, however I kept at this one all the way through, making me question what kept me driving forward. In all honesty though, I was skimming my the end of it. Here and there are some useful bits of information but the book is too long and goes on a tangent too easily. It also lacks clear conclusions or sometimes fails to provide clear definitions of questions that we don't have an answer to yet. Often it goes off on a tangent and either over-explains things or doesn't give enough explanation on technical details, leaving me confused. I debated if the books positive traits earn it a third star, but no. I think the path is still open for someone to write the layperson's guide to the search for - and notional possibility of - extra-terrestrial intelligence.
Profile Image for Bobby.
70 reviews
February 16, 2021
I feel conflicted about this one, because although there were some really fascinating findings throughout (some things that really made me think and look at our universe in a way I haven't before), ultimately these tidbits are swamped with technicalities, jargon, and scientific tangents. I really wanted to like it, but I couldn't help but feel like I was reading a textbook, which made for a tough read. Now I understand that any nonfiction astronomy book needs to be backed up by hard data and facts, but I feel like this data could have been footnotes rather than the bulk of the text. As well, it seemed like things got quite repetitive near the end, constantly echoing earlier findings in longer and longer tangents - by the end, I was just ready to be done with it all. 2.5/5
Profile Image for Monica Sangrador.
91 reviews2 followers
June 12, 2021
Fantástico libro, realmente todo aquel que alguna vez se haya preguntado , ¿estamos solos en el Universo? debe leer este libro, porque esa pregunta nos lleva primero a la cuestión de como nosotros hemos llegado a ser como decía Sagan, polvo de estrellas que ha tomado consciencia. Keith Cooper hace primero de llegar a esa pregunta, un repaso desde todos los ámbitos (sociológicos, tecnológicos, éticos, físicos) y planteando todas las teorías existentes, de la vida y su evolución en La Tierra. También me gusta especialmente que incluya la ciencia ficción como punta de lanza para formarnos teorías, sobre todo teniendo en cuenta que la mayoría de los autores son astrofísicos o ingenieros. Un auténtico placer de lectura que nos hace viajar a las estrellas
Profile Image for ☄k.c.☄.
33 reviews6 followers
January 21, 2020
A great book about the many potential scenarios involved with first contact with aliens. You can tell that a lot of time and effort went into researching and writing this; every part of this book gives the science of whatever is being talked about, along with plenty of examples and comparisons to help make it easy for people who – like me – struggle to understand the sciences. There are moments of humor and heart, and I think that this would have been that much better if there had been more of it. An incredibly well written, insightful read!
Profile Image for Kasey Haught.
70 reviews2 followers
May 26, 2021
Of the various popular works on astrobiology I've read recently, this one definitely gives the deepest and most comprehensive look at SETI, and a fairly extensive, though shallower look at the Fermi paradox, at least insomuch regarding the technical and economic impediments to interstellar signalling. Also somewhat lightly but interestingly provides some counterpoints to Rare Earth arguments.

For those interested in astrobiology, I would say this is one of the more essential books on the subject.
Profile Image for Raechel.
424 reviews22 followers
September 16, 2020
An awesome book that scratches all my science nerd itches.

Space!
Aliens!
Sociology!
Evolutionary biology!
Star Trek references!
An appreciation for sci-fi and how it often looks ahead to where actual science will eventually be!

But for real, awesome book that's very informative and interesting and you learn so much while not being bombarded with too much information. I'm honestly surprised more people haven't read this.
Profile Image for David Jijelava.
106 reviews4 followers
January 24, 2022
SETI is probably one of those things that sounds cool, but reading about it might not be that much fun. Not when Keith Cooper does it. He talks about so much interesting stuff that you didn't even realize could be connected to SETI: from the evolution and different life forms on Earth to anthropological research on Polynesian people, and so much more. And the references to sci-fi movies and books are spot on!
Profile Image for Arielle.
70 reviews
April 4, 2021
Definitely think I would have enjoyed an abbreviated version of this book a little more. It can get pretty dense at times but is very thought provoking. Was not expecting to finish this book feeling so appreciative of our Earth and how fantastic/unimaginable it is that we are even here.

Also very irritated that we haven’t figured out how to talk to dolphins yet.
122 reviews
May 28, 2021
From an outsider's perspective, this was a great overview of the field of SETI, where it has been and where it's going, and some of the most important questions it faces in the ongoing search. The author presents a very balanced perspective too, which I appreciated. He made me excited about the possibilities, but equally aware of the challenges and limitations being faced.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,040 reviews20 followers
May 11, 2022
Very reaching and obviously self-interested. I was amused by the author's livid outrage at some guys who transmitted radio signals into space in case space aliens eat us. I found the theorising about alien cultures based on what we know about life and game theory etc. interesting. The history of SETI itself was boring but mercifully short.
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