The Contact Paradox

Challenging Our Assumptions in 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 civilisations to our existence. 

Of course, we don’t know if such civilisations really exist. 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. So far, SETI has found no evidence of extraterrestrial life, but with more than a hundred billion stars in our Galaxy alone to search, the odds of quick success are stacked against us. 

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 civilisations 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 civilisations survive in the Universe long enough for us to detect them, and what can their existence, or lack thereof, reveal to us about our future prospects? Can we learn something about our own history when we explore what happens when two civilisations 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.

Published by Bloomsbury Sigma on 31 October 2019 in the UK, and on 21 January 2020 in the US, you can order a copy here. There’s also an audiobook available from Tantor Media.

Read the reviews on Goodreads.

Praise for The Contact Paradox

“There is growing interest in the possibility of ‘alien intelligence’, and in how best to search for it. Keith Cooper’s broad and balanced perspective on current debates and programmes deserves wide readership.” – Lord Martin Rees

“The great virtue of Cooper’s discussion is that it gives readers a picture of living science. Too often, science is presented as fixed, solved, completed. Cooper shows us scientists disagreeing, presenting and supporting alternative theories, and gives clear discussions of the differing views, letting the science live.”The Washington Post

“Fantastic … despite countless science fiction cautionary tales, humans are still reflexively eager to meet sentient alien life. Those enthusiasts should read The Contact Paradox before laying out the welcome mat.”Christian Science Monitor  

“With concise and approachable writing, Cooper crafts a worthwhile popular science work about questions that, as scientists continually improve the human capacity for gathering information about the rest of the universe, are becoming increasingly important.” – Starred review in Publishers Weekly

“There’s so much to unpack here, but Cooper makes it all easy to digest, even as he’s blowing your mind with the sheer immensity of the universe and the incredible distances and challenges involved in locating, let alone communicating with, an alien species. The Contact Paradox is the best of scientific writing: it’s engaging, informative, full of wonder, heartbreakingly honest, and presents all sides fairly. Everything you need to know on the subject is right here.”Seattle Book Review

“This eloquent, fascinating book likewise upends a standard assumption, in this case that humans would actually *want* to meet extraterrestrial intelligence. Whether you’re the planet’s biggest xenophobe or SETI’s biggest fan, Keith Cooper will both delight and challenge you in these pages.” – Rated 2nd best science book of 2019 by Open Letters Review

“A thorough and timely overview of the latest thinking in SETI and its controversial offspring, METI. This is a stimulating, provocative and ultimately optimistic enquiry into the biggest question we’re ever likely to answer: are we alone?” – science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds, author of Revelation Space

“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. It’s a smart and concise look at SETI, the people devoted to it and the potential consequences of its success.”The Maine Edge

“Cooper leaves us with an optimistic outlook: even if we don’t find aliens, we will learn a lot about ourselves just by looking”Scientific American

““Are we alone in the universe?” has no answer yet, but Cooper delivers an enlightening exploration of the question.”Kirkus

“A rousing new essay collection about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence… according to Cooper’s wide review of literature and subject matter experts, there are mind-bending assumptions that underlie many SETI projects — and which complicate their potential for success.”Futurism

“In The Contact Paradox, science journalist Keith Cooper examines some of the issues behind that lack of detection … from topics related to astrobiology in general to ones more closely tied to intelligence, development of technology, and search efforts.”The Space Review

“This is an entertainingly well-written, fact-filled dive into the world of SETI that explores where it should go in the future and what the consequences might be if we do contact ET.”Starburst

“The mystery of humanity’s place in the universe enthrals millions. Whatever strangeness prevails out there, shouldn’t we explore, at least with curious minds? The Contact Paradox surveys what science has revealed about this odd cosmos, the vastness of our ignorance and curiosity about any ‘others’ out there, and some of the steps we can take – even now – to prepare.” – David Brin, Hugo and Nebula award-winning author

“There are some serious philosophical questions explained here. The first chapter of the book… explores the idea of altruism, questioning how an alien species might act if they did come into contact with us. It’s an interesting start, and one that sets the tone for the rest of the book brilliantly.” – How It Works

“Cooper delivers an exciting, provocative tome to which science buffs will flock.” – Booklist

“I really loved how Cooper presented his argument, circled back around to clarify and reiterate, and also used pop culture and science fiction references to illustrate some of the ideas about which he wrote. It’s not an easy book to read, but it is accessible and is not full of unexplained jargon so that a casual science reader like myself could pick it up, understand the concepts about which he wrote, and enjoy it. I think writing about a very specialized, specific field in a way that makes it accessible to people on the other side of the field is a difficult task, and I thoroughly enjoyed this from beginning to end.”Fairy Bookmother

“You’ll find an absorbing, first-rate read in The Contact Paradox … the reader will find this book challenging suppositions…and grappling with the ramifications if SETI succeeds.”Inside Outer Space

“Cooper’s book raises fascinating questions at every turn, always bringing the complexities of technical methods and far-reaching questions about life and society into the real world of politics and funding. This is a book about the choices we need to make in continuing our search for life in the universe.” SciFi Mind

“In an engrossing narrative, Keith Cooper dissembles our expectations for intelligent alien life down to a set of assumptions we can gorge on with scientific precision. It is a meal guaranteed to expand what you thought was possible, and brings the search for life beyond the Earth from the realm of fiction to that of a scientific endeavour.” – Elizabeth Tasker, Associate Professor at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and author of The Planet Factory.