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Book Review

By Keith R. Taylor

Captured by Aliens. By Joel Achenbach, 1999, Simon and Schuster, 415 pages.

When I get a good book I will tote it around with me everywhere I go. That was the case with Captured by Aliens by Joel Achenbach. My nose was in it while I was waiting for my car to be repaired. Another fellow in the customer's lounge spied the title and asked, "Hey, another book about folks getting abducted eh? Do you think those things are real?"

The only thing wrong with Captured is the title. Otherwise it has nothing in common with books by the likes of Bud Hopkins or John Mack. Folks looking to validate their beliefs in UFO visits will be disappointed unless they have a thick skin or a good sense of humor.

It is simply a wonderful book for those of us who hang around the fringes of the scientific community, but have little conception of what it's all about. We know for example that the observable universe is some 15 billion light years across. We even understand that a light year is a unit of distance not time. For most of us the problem is that we can't comprehend numbers that big.

Achenbach explains space things to the non-scientist as well as Sagan. Better yet, he's even funnier than the famed astrophysicist. Virtually every paragraph brings a smile, every chapter a belly laugh.

But most important it gives us a wonderful examination of things such as: Fermi's paradox, Drake's equation, SETI, the Condon Report, the Sturrock Report, the Zoo Hypothesis, and Zero Point Field. One time through the book and a nerd like me can throw around enough buzz words to impress my grandkids. Best of all though I can finally start to comprehend how much we cannot possibly know. It's especially interesting, and a little disconcerting, to learn that those who've made a life's work of science are still guessing about so many things. Unlike religion, science doesn't give many absolutes.

Among other places, Achenbach takes the reader to Arecibo, Puerto Rico, where he visits with Frank Drake and Carl Sagan while they listen for signs of intelligent life "out there." We also learn that Carl Sagan, the only astronomer many of us ever heard of, wasn't a hero to all his colleagues. The members of the National Academy of Science refused to admit him. That's disappointing to those of us who get our science from TV and have few enough heroes in that field. One member of the Academy in urging Sagan's rejection, wrote ". . . it is my understanding that election to the Academy is based on scientific excellence and creativity, and not on ability as a popularizer."

Achenbach also visited Green Bank, WV, and Jill Tarter. Tarter was the model for Jodie Foster's character in Sagan's Contact. Sagan has been relentless in his search for signs of intelligence elsewhere. Tarter is just as relentless and even more single-minded. It has been almost her whole life. Even if she never finds any of the elusive signals, she is sure they will be heard some day. She tells herself, "We were able to set in place something that would eventually make that discovery happen." And that's not all folks. Achenbach covers the other side as well. Among other things, he attended the Sixth Annual International UFO Congress in Laughlin, Nevada. There he learned that President Clinton had been in a starship with some aliens who shuttled him between Arkansas and the White House.

Even Ken Starr missed that bit of information.