UFO sightings are all a joke

Scientific tools for space hitchhikers

Michael Hanlon investigates "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - in the Light of Science"

Reviewed by Dirk Lorenzen

Abell 1835 IR1916 was one of the most distant galaxies that terrestrial telescopes have discovered so far. (Eso)

Anyone who has ever wondered what the end of the universe might look like is sure to be a fan of Douglas Adams' "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". As in any good science fiction, it contains more than a grain of scientific facts. "In the light of science" is a carefree tour of the latest findings that help illuminate essential topics of the classic in an entertaining way: aliens, journeys through space, parallel universes, instant translators and much more.

Douglas Adams' "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is a classic in science fiction literature. The adventures of Arthur Dent, who has to leave Earth because the extraterrestrial Vogons are blowing up our blue planet to create a detour in hyperspace, have long been a cult.

In the wake of this global success, Michael Hanlon is now sailing, who is investigating some of the phenomena and machines occurring at Douglas Adams "in the light of science". Because the hitchhiker is full of fantastic things. Most of them are absolutely nonsensical physically - but some have a real background and are at least theoretically possible.

Based on the knowledge at the end of the 1970s - when the hitchhiker was created - Hanlon describes the current state of research in matters of black holes, extraterrestrial intelligence, time travel, parallel universes, teleportation, etc.

Since the Hitchhiker is mainly about aliens, the author asks in the first chapter "Where are the aliens?" Because it is paradoxical: There are an unimaginable number of stars in space - of which there will be very many planets. The vast universe should only be teeming with life, including intelligent life. "Where are they all?" Asked the great physicist Enrico Fermi. Hanlon then deliberately declines some supposed UFO sightings, all of which he unmasked as fraud. But how can the Fermi paradox be explained? Perhaps the other civilizations in space have placed us under species protection.

Or is the "planetarium hypothesis" true, according to which the universe is only an illusion that intelligent beings have created for us? But intelligent life may also always be doomed - and not live long enough to thoroughly explore space. Or the aliens have simply overlooked us so far. Should they soon notice earth and humanity and then come, they will hopefully be more friendly to us than the Vogons ...

Michael Hanlon is a seasoned writer. For several years he has been the science editor of the conference newspaper "Daily Mail". He knows his way around and occasionally spices up his text with subtle swipes at today's science, which Douglas Adams saw almost prophetically almost three decades ago. So he lets his supercomputer "Deep Thought" search for the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything else.

In the chapter on time travel, Hanlon takes readers into daring thought experiments. First of all, he takes up the story of the poet Lallafa, who is known in The Hitchhiker's Guide as the creator of the best poems in the galaxy - but he still writes on dried sheets, without a word processing program or laser printer. Shortly after the time machine was invented, marketers at a correction fluid company wondered if their product hadn't made Lallafa's poems even better. You travel back in time, meet him and persuade him to sign an advertising contract.

Unfortunately, they visited Lallafa when he was just about to start poetry. Lallafa got so rich and famous because of the huge amount of money the company made and has never been able to bring herself to write poetry. Using this and other examples, Michael Hanlon explains how time travel into the past would plunge us into nasty problems, contradict all logic and are therefore impossible.

But in a spaceship that is almost as fast as light, one could, so to speak, travel into the future: For example, a year would pass on board, while more than 2000 years have passed on Earth. So whoever came back to earth could live in the distant future - but never catch up with the time lag. With extremely fast spaceships, in which time passes more slowly, the future can at least in some way be slowed down. Physically this will certainly be feasible one day.

In the thought experiments on teleportation, quantum states etc. it is often a bit lengthy and very theoretical. Readers without any previous knowledge of physics will have a hard time in these passages. Then every joke is gone for pages - a serious neglect if you dare to hitchhike!

Hanlon always prefers its 15 chapters with a quote from The Hitchhiker's Guide. But the pure joy of reading hardly wants to arise. If the hitchhiker is still a cleverly developed story, this book consists of 15 completely separate chapters. This is an advantage if you want to read a few pages of "scientific hitchhikers" quickly before going to sleep. But the topics are chosen to be very popular and seem quite arbitrary.

Perhaps the book is best for people who don't know the hitchhiker. You get a sometimes very entertaining expedition through some very popular topics in modern physics. For real hitchhiker fans, it is sure to be disappointing in many places.

Michael Hanlon writes in the preface that he never met Douglas Adams, who died five years ago. But he thanked him for changing his approach to life. Readers who need a change in their attitude to life in our cosmos should not resort to the popular scientific treatise on the hitchhiker, but rather to the wonderfully weird original!

Hanlon, Michael: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - in the Light of Science.
Translated by Hainer Kober
Rowohlt Taschenbuchverlag 2005
254 pages. 8.90 euros.