Part 1 – Laying the Foundation
The concept of intelligent life forming outside of our planet has been around for quite some time. Most people throughout history have conceptualized this idea as a powerful supreme being, a god-like intelligence that determines the fates of the very people that believe in it. That is not what this blog is about. While the search for a higher power is a worthy cause for any theologian or spiritual enthusiast, I’m looking to discuss something a little more down to earth… or at least earth like.
Humanity has only recently been making efforts to look for signs of extraterrestrial life – that is, life that’s technologically and biologically similar to us yet developing on other worlds – for only about 150 years. Over the scope of all of human existence, 150 years is but a blink of the eye. It’s only when more powerful instruments like the modern refracting and reflecting telescopes came into existence did we finally have the power to truly look beyond our own solar system. With this came an understanding of just how truly massive our universe is and what interesting places that the other planets in our solar system are. Soon after our universe began to show its secrets, astronomers and science fiction writers alike had a field day.
Misnomers Make Not a Martian
In 1887 Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli used the telescopes of his day to do some of the most detailed observations of Mars that had been seen at that point. What he saw were deep lines cut into the Martian surface. Schiaparelli described them by the Italian word “canali” or channels, which foreign readers of his publications translated as canals. This simple misnomer lead to a belief that these fissures were in fact artificial, and therefore created by a highly advanced civilization of alien beings. Unbeknownst to Schiaparelli, his “canali” were in fact the observed result of an optical illusion. Yet even after that information had come to light, the perception of life on Mars was now embedded in the minds of people from around the world. Further credence was given to the idea due to the similarities our two planets share.
It might be easy for us these days to dismiss the hope and dream of intelligent life on Mars, but considering how similar the two planets are it really wasn’t a stretch. Mars is noticeably smaller then Earth but similar in its composition. The polar ice caps at its north and south poles behave in a familiar pattern to their counterparts on Earth. It’s also now believed that Mars may have been able to support an environment not unlike Earth, with water and an oxygen atmosphere. No wonder people found it so easy to accept the idea of Martian life. However, the truth is the only life that would have had time to develop on Earth was likely microbial in nature and not at all intelligent.
Aliens are Jerks
One great thing to come out of Schiaparelli’s optical illusion, was the
wave of inspiration that fell over the science fiction writers of the time and their successors in subsequent decades. The earlier writings of life beyond Earth often featured advanced civilizations of great wisdom and intelligence, usually willing to save us from our own destruction, many times emerging from the beautiful lush environments of Mars and Venus. That would change as we started to realize that both Mars and especially Venus were barren and inhospitable. Sadly our beloved alien protectors started to take on the characteristics of the planets they came from. Gone were the ideal utopian societies, and with them any chance of people accepting the possibility of alien life as positive thing. Instead they were replaced with little green men, hell bent on world domination and distraction.
War of The Worlds by HG Wells took this idea to a whole new level by making us a very convincing target. To our knowledge the other worlds in our solar system were nasty inhospitable places, so naturally aliens of any intelligence would get the hell out of dodge and make for the nicest wettest place in the area. From Wells on, things only got worse. The advent of radio and cinema made the threat even more real, putting a face to these “monsters” and the atrocities they would commit (see Independence Day). It seemed that aliens would continue to get a bad rap for years to come.
Then a few idealists decided to play around with some novel ideas. The movies Close Encounters of The Third Kind, ET: The Extraterrestrial, Cocoon and books like Contact (also a great movie) showed the world that not aliens have to be jerks. Perhaps not the idealistic saviors of early science fiction, but certainly not the evil monsters other would have us believe. Now maybe we could stop and think of the concept in a more positive light. Maybe even in a more factual light?
Taking Things Seriously
While the world of sci fi may have (more often then not) painted ET in a negative light, science was much more friendly. From Nikola Tesla to Carl Sagan, aliens would get a fair shot and soon inspire millions around the world to actively search for them.
Join me next time, when we dive into the science behind in the search for extraterrestrial life.