Alien Scientist 52: Ever-Speculative Extraterrestrials
Stephen Marshall, a former resident of Tsukuba, has been writing Alien Scientist articles for the Alien Times since 2001. Even though he no longer lives in Tsukuba, he is still a regular contributor to the magazine. Here is his latest intergalactic report.
The existence of aliens is nowadays so often associated with the advent of space travel that we have to remind ourselves that people have imagined the existence of other worlds, populated by extraterrestrial beings, long before humanity ever had the means to get off the Earth’s surface.
Since the dawn of humanity, people have associated the heavens with celestial beings of one sort or another – whether deities, angels or some other kinds of spirits. Ancient Greek and Roman writers speculated on the possibility of creatures inhabiting the Moon – and the possibility of humans travelling there. But it was with the astronomical and geographical discoveries of the ‘age of science’ that speculation on this topic really took off.
Copernicus’ suggestion that the Earth was not the centre of the Universe naturally prompted speculation that the Earth might not be the only inhabited ‘world’ circling the sun. Meanwhile, Galileo’s observations that the sun and planets appeared to have visible imperfections helped promote the idea that the heavens were not a separate celestial region, but were made of the same base kind of matter as down on Earth.
Speculation about other worlds was also spurred by the ‘discovery’ of the New Worlds of the Americas and the Antipodes – and the discovery of humans living there. Could such locations – at the time assumed to be inaccessible to the known world – harbour inhabitants unrelated to known humanity? If so, might some kind of ‘people’ also exist in other worlds, previously assumed to be uninhabited, such as the Moon?
As the historian David Cressy has pointed out, a succession of speculative books and treatises appeared in this early modern period. These were in part cosmological and part anthropological, such as John Wilkins’ magnificently titled The Discovery of a World in the Moone; or, A Discourse Tending to Prove, That ‘Tis Probable There May Be Another Habitable World in That Planet (1638).
To many of the writers of this age, the possibility of extraterrestrial life was not merely a biological matter, but a theological one, since the existence of other worlds could alter our perceived special relationship with God. (Christians wondered if the ‘men on the moon’ would have suffered the Fall of Adam, or would be redeemed through the resurrection of Christ).
To these ethereal matters were added speculations about the practical matter of space propulsion. The second-century satirical writer Lucian imagined his heroes ascending to the Moon by means of a whirlwind; or in another case, through flapping of the wings of an eagle and a vulture. One seventeenth century lunar voyage made use of a harness contraption drawn by a flock of migratory geese; another relied on a fiery chariot.
While these means of space travel may seem laughably naïve, they did at least express a degree of physical specificity that allows them to be subject to scientific scrutiny in the first place, rather than using purely magical or supernatural means.
And while these literary treatments of celestial mechanics may be unconvincing, they were not significantly surpassed even into the twentieth century, when space ships would still be imagined propelled by just as incredible forms of mechanical locomotion, or mysterious anti-gravitational forces.
The inhabitants of these extraterrestrial worlds – whether believed to be divinely created, or evolved – were routinely assumed to be sentient and intelligent: in other words, the equivalent of extraterrestrial humans, rather than merely extraterrestrial animals or plants.
The prospect of intelligent extraterrestrials raises the likelihood of the aliens themselves having the intellectual capacity to imagine a plenitude of worlds, rather than the universe being just a faintly-lit, dusty vacuum. It seems as likely that aliens would speculate on other worlds inhabited by other, yet otherworldly aliens, as the prospect of a plenitude of worlds in which each alien race believed itself to be unique.
Of course, we are so accustomed to imagining aliens all over the place that we may need to be reminded that their existence remains as speculative as ever. It remains to be seen by what means we might eventually come to meet any extraterrestrials, if ever. Alien contact could yet be centuries or millennia in the future, before we have the slightest chance of shaking tentacles with an extraterrestrial. By this time, the idea of corporeal astronauts blasting off from the Earth’s surface in fossil-propelled rocket-ships may seem almost as quaint as traversing the heavens by means of a flaming chariot – or the wings of a vulture.