Extraterrestrials—The Age-Old Dream
MODERN-DAY science-fiction writers did not invent the notion of extraterrestrials. Some 23 centuries ago, a Greek philosopher named Metrodorus taught that a universe containing merely one inhabited world would be as unlikely as a large field growing only one ear of corn. Lucretius, a Roman poet of the first century B.C.E., wrote that “in other parts of space there are other earths and various races of men.”
This teaching, called the plurality of worlds, was in disfavor in Christendom for many centuries. But from about 1700 to the early part of our own century, most educated people, including some of the greatest scientists in history, believed firmly in life on other worlds. In fact, one educator of the mid-1800’s was widely attacked when he dared to write a paper denying the doctrine.
People seemed eager to believe in extraterrestrials, even on the flimsiest of evidence. In 1835 a newspaper reporter wrote that astronomers had discovered life on the moon. He wrote that strange animals, exotic plants, and even little people with wings, hovering about and gesturing visibly, were all seen through a telescope! The circulation of his newspaper soared. Many continued to believe the tale even after it was exposed as a fraud.
Scientists were optimistic as well. In the late 1800’s, astronomer Percival Lowell was convinced that he could see a complex system of canals on the surface of the planet Mars. He mapped them out in detail and wrote books on the civilization that had constructed them. In France, the Academy of Sciences was so sure that there was life on Mars that it offered a reward to the first person who communicated with any extraterrestrials other than Martians.
Some proposed outlandish schemes to communicate with beings on nearby worlds, ranging from lighting huge fires in the Sahara Desert to planting geometrically shaped forests across Siberia. In 1899 an American inventor erected a mast topped with a copper ball and sent powerful electric pulses through it to signal the Martians. People’s hair stood on end, and lights glowed for 30 miles [50 km] around, but there was no answer from Mars.
Full of Hope
While the technology behind today’s search for life on other worlds may be new, one thing remains unchanged: Scientists are still confident that mankind is not alone in the cosmos. As astronomer Otto Wöhrbach wrote in the German newspaper Nürnberger Nachrichten: “There is hardly a natural scientist who would not say yes if asked if there was extraterrestrial life.” Gene Bylinsky, author of Life in Darwin’s Universe, put it this way: “Any day now, if radio astronomers are to be believed, a signal from the stars will flash across the unimaginable gulf of space to end our cosmic loneliness.”
Why are scientists so sure that life exists on other worlds? Their optimism starts with the stars. There are so many of them—thousands of millions in our galaxy. Then the assumptions begin. Surely, many of those stars must also have planets circling them, and life must have developed on some of those worlds. Following that line of reasoning, astronomers have speculated that there are anywhere from thousands to millions of civilizations right here in our own galaxy!
Does It Matter?
What difference does it make whether there is life beyond Earth or not? Well, scientists feel that either answer would have a tremendous impact on the human family. They say that learning that we are alone in the universe would teach mankind to value life here in view of its uniqueness. On the other hand, one respected scientist reasons that alien civilizations would likely be many millions of years more advanced than our own and might share their vast wisdom with us. They might teach us to cure our diseases, to end pollution, wars, and starvation. They might even show us how to overcome death itself!
No more disease, war, death—that kind of hope means a lot to people in our troubled times. No doubt it does to you as well. You will probably agree, though, that it is better to have no hope at all than to lean on a false one. It is important for us to find out, then, if scientists are on solid ground when they assert that the universe is teeming with populated worlds.
[Blurb on page 5]
Are scientists on solid ground when they assert that the universe is teeming with populated worlds?