Mars, Aliens, and SETI

I’d love to be talking about unambiguously artificial signals picked up by the Allen Telescope Array, or reports of a ship from beyond the Solar System settling into orbit around our moon.

But that hasn’t happened, and probably won’t. Not in my lifetime.

Instead, I’ll talk about why I don’t “believe in” extraterrestrial life; and do not assume that we are alone in the universe. That puts me in the third of folks who aren’t sure, and I’ll get back to that.

My ‘Friday’ posts are usually about more-or-less-current ‘science news.’ That won’t happen this week. I’ve read a few interesting articles, and will be talking about them — after the Christmas-New Year’s gymkhana is over.

This week I’m using material that didn’t quite fit into an earlier post. I’ll also talk about the Great Moon Hoax, Nicola Tesla and Martians, and what I think about life in the universe.

  1. Science and Silliness in the 19th Century
  2. Lovecraft and “a Placid Island of Ignorance”
  3. Mars: Canals, Pulp Fiction, and Robot Spaceships
  4. Aliens, an Opinion Poll; Serious SETI and CETI

Alone in the Universe: or Not

As of this week, we don’t know whether life exists anywhere other than Earth: apart from what we’ve sent, and the occasional microscopic hitchhiker.

We may learn that life began on many other worlds.

Or we may still be searching for extraterrestrial life when our descendants are discussing the pros and cons of sending probes to other galaxies.

Either way, I think that we’ll learn a great deal about how this universe works — and discover that there is even more left to learn.

1. Science and Silliness in the 19th Century


(From NASA/JPL-Caltech, used w/o permission.)
(M31, the Great Andromeda Galaxy, one of 54 galaxies in the Local Group, photographed in ultraviolet light by NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer.)

We’ve been learning a great deal about the universe since Proposition 27/219 of the Condemnation of 1277 reminded academics that God decides what’s real, not Aristotle. (December 2, 2016)

As it turns out, Aristotle was wrong. There are other worlds. Thousands that we’ve found so far in our little corner of the Milky Way Galaxy.

We’ve got pretty good maps of several in the Solar System by now, and I’m getting ahead of myself.

In 1764, Charles Messier put the Andromeda Galaxy in his catalog as a nebula: object M31. By the 19th century, astronomers like William Huggins realized that some light from the Andromeda “nebula” resembled light from stars.

In 1925, Edwin Hubble used observations of Cepheid variable stars to demonstrate that the Andromeda Galaxy was another “island universe:” far outside our Milky Way Galaxy. I’m skipping a lot of folks, like Ernst Öpik.

The point of this trip down memory lane is that we were learning a lot, fast.

Going Ballistic over Darwin

Charles Darwin’s theory wasn’t the first discussion of how life has been changing.

Aelius Galenus was a doctor when Antoninus Pius was Emperor, and died around the time Justin Martialis assassinated Caracalla — there’s a story behind that, by the way.

Anyway, Galenus figured monkeys were like us, since they look a little like us. He was almost right. (July 15, 2016)

Darwin’s theory of natural selection got mixed up in 19th century English politics. (October 28, 2016)

That may help explain why so many folks go ballistic over Darwin, evolution, and science in general. H. P. Lovecraft didn’t help, and I’ll get back to that, too.

The Great Moon Hoax: 1835


(“Nouvelles découvertes dans la Lune….” A lithograph of The Sun’s ersatz “Great Astronomical Discoveries” coverage, translated into French.)

If you believe everything you see in the news, we’ve known that there is extraterrestrial life since 1835:

“GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES LATELY MADE BY SIR JOHN HERSCHEL, L.L.D. F.R.S. &c.
At the Cape of Good Hope
[From Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science]”
(Dr. Andrew Grant, The Sun, (August 25, 1835) via Wikipedia)

The smaller picture is a lithograph from The Sun’s six-day coverage of Sir John Herschel’s (alleged) observations.

Dr. Andrew Grant never existed, and we’re still not quite sure who wrote those articles for The Sun. Richard Adams Locke, a writer whose knowledge of history and science made his padded resume seem plausible, is the obvious suspect.

About the “great astronomical discoveries:” Sir John Herschel hadn’t really built a beyond-next-generation telescope at the Cape of Good Hope; and hadn’t seen bison, goats, unicorns, bipedal tailless beavers and bat-winged people on the moon.

Eventually somebody checked into the story’s source, learning that the Edinburgh Journal of Science had stopped publication in 1833: years before Herschel’s alleged discoveries.

The story was still worth reporting, though, and by 1852 was making the rounds in at least some European papers.1

Tesla, Wireless Telegraphy, Martians – – –

Nicola Tesla moved to Colorado Springs on May 17, 1899.

Folks could hear his artificial lightning and thunder 15 miles away. Tesla’s experiments raised sparks on nearby sidewalks, and caused a power outage in August.

He did not, however, use his magnifying transmitter as a reading light. That photo was a double exposure, made by Dickenson V. Alley as a promotional stunt. As Tesla later explained:

“Of course, the discharge was not playing when the experimenter was photographed, as might be imagined!”
(Nicola Tesla, Colorado Springs Notes, via Wikimedia Commons)

When he wasn’t electrifying his neighborhood, Tesla experimented with radio communications: a new field in those days. In December 8, 1899, he sent a letter to reporter Julian Hawthorne, saying that he’d picked up odd signals that could be from another planet.

Pretty soon, news that Tesla was communicating with Martians was spreading through at least the English-speaking world. It made a good story.

I think folks who figure that he’d picked up test transmissions from another human’s wireless experiments are right. Marconi was working on long-range transmitters around that time, and so were quite a few other folks.

Why were so many folks so ready to believe that non-human people lived on Mars, the moon, and elsewhere?

Let’s look at what had been happening in the 19th century.

– – – And the Wonders of Science

Steam locomotives were pulling freight and passengers faster and farther than horses ever could. Also adding phrases like “train wreck” to my native language.

Georg Ohm was bringing the world closer to electric lights, spin dryers and rolling blackouts.

The McCormick Reaper and other newfangled tech was making agriculture more efficient.

The Contagiousness of puerperal fever,” by Oliver Wendel Holmes Sr., and Ignaz Semmelweis’ observations eventually resulted in doctors killing fewer pregnant women, and I’ve talked about that before. (October 30, 2016)

Antoine Lavoisier, Joseph Louis Proust, and John Dalton were laying the groundwork for atomic theory.

Folks who didn’t know much about science or mathematics may have been ready to believe just about anything written about scientists. Don’t laugh: 43 out of 50 folks signed a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide not all that long ago.

Meanwhile, János Bolyai, Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky, and Bernhard Riemann unleashed non-Euclidean geometry upon an unsuspecting world.

2. Lovecraft and “a Placid Island of Ignorance”

Non-Euclidean geometry apparently gave H. P. Lovecraft fits. Or maybe he figured his readers would think it sounded cool.

Either way, I get the impression that he didn’t like science.

“…The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age….”
(“The Call of Cthulhu,” H. P. Lovecraft (1929); via WikiQuote)

I don’t see knowledge and science that way, but I’m a Catholic who understands our faith.

Some of our Saints, like St. Albertus Magnus and St. Hildegard of Bingen. were scientists back when science was still called natural philosophy. (October 30, 2016; July 29, 2016)

I’ve talked about science, truth, and Pope Leo XIII, before. (July 15, 2016)

Basically, studying natural processes is a good idea. It’s one way we can learn more about God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 3135)

We think God is large and in charge, and rational. As St. Iranaeus pointed out, we’re rational and therefore like God; with free will. (Catechism, 268, 21122114, 1730, 1934, 1951)

We don’t worship nature — that’d be idolatry — so we can study it without fear of offending ‘the spirits.’ (Catechism, 282283, 21122114)

Greco-Roman culture and beliefs didn’t allow autopsies. That’s why Galenus studied monkeys.

The Church says treating bodies of the dead with respect and charity is important: and that autopsies are okay for legal inquests or scientific research. Organ donation is a good idea, too. (Catechism, 23002301)

Today’s medical science and technology arguably exists in large part because Christianity’s attitude toward the study of nature allows autopsies and other scientific research. Where folks accept the Catholic attitude toward using our brains, anyway.

Leaving the Island: and Loving It

It’s been nine decades since Lovecraft wrote “The Call of Cthulhu.” Some folks still fear leaving our “placid island of ignorance.”

Others are doing what folks have done for at least 1,900,000 years: wondering what’s over the horizon, and finding “wonderful things.” (December 9, 2016)

We’ve found scary things in “deep woods that no axe has ever cut,” as Lovecraft put it in “The Colour Out of Space.”

But we survived, developed better axes, have been learning to be careful with our tools, and that’s another topic. (August 12, 2016)

I don’t agree with Lovecraft’s2 view of reality, as reflected in his Cthulhu stories: but I sympathize with him, a bit.

Living from 1890 to 1937, Lovecraft experienced one of Western civilization’s less tranquil eras: including Modern art, the Titanic’s truncated voyage, and a global war.

Add a string of personal crises, and I can see how he might have imagined that the universe was at best indifferent: if not malevolent.

What we were learning about the scale of the universe probably didn’t help.

That brings me to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1809-1892, whose personal life and writing isn’t much like Lovecraft’s at all.

I like some of what he wrote, too. I also think he had a more sensible response to his century’s discoveries.3

“Many a hearth upon our dark globe sighs after many a vanish’d face,
“Many a planet by many a sun may roll with a dust of a vanish’d race.

“Raving politics, never at rest—as this poor earth’s pale history runs,—
“What is it all but a trouble of ants in the gleam of a million million of suns?…”
(“Vastness,” Tennyson, via Bartleby.com)

If I thought my faith depended on Mesopotamian assumptions being spot-on accurate about how the universe works, I’d be in a pickle. I don’t, so I’m not. (December 2, 2016; August 28, 2016; July 29, 2016)

I think truth is very important, and that God creates everything: the physical realities that science studies, and the spiritual realities that faith pursues. (Catechism, Prologue, 27, 74, 214217, more under Truth in the Catechism’s index)

Since I think my faith is built on truth, fearing truth would be — illogical. It’s like Pope Leo XIII wrote: “truth cannot contradict truth.” (“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893))

I also think insisting that there must — or must not — be other people in this universe is unreasonable. This is God’s creation, so whether or not we have neighbors is up to the Almighty. (July 29, 2016)

3. Mars: Canals, Pulp Fiction, and Robot Spaceships


(From NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS; via Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology; used w/o permission.)

“This view of the downwind face of ‘Namib Dune’ on Mars covers 360 degrees, including a portion of Mount Sharp on the horizon. The site is part of the dark-sand ‘Bagnold Dunes’ field along the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. Images taken from orbit indicate that dunes in the Bagnold field move as much as about 3 feet (1 meter) per Earth year.

“The component images of this scene were taken on Dec. 18, 2015, by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover during the 1,197th Martian day, or sol, of the rover’s work on Mars….”
(Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology/NASA (January 4, 2016)

Curiosity is the Mars Science Laboratory’s lander, a car-sized robot that’s 1,546 sols/1,588 Earth days into its mission as I’m writing this.

We’ve come a long way since Schiaparelli published his maps.

Paul’s Martians, Secchi’s Canali


(From Giovanni Schiaparelli, via Meyers Konversationslexikon/Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Giovanni Schiaparelli’s 1877 map of Mars.)

Frank R. Paul’s Martian, from a 1939 science fiction magazine, was arguably more imagination than science.

Mars was looking less and less like Earth.

Astronomers noticed Martian polar ice caps in the 1600s. Giovanni Domenico Cassini’s 1666 observation may have been the first. Other astronomers observed Martian seasonal changes in the 1700s.

Better tech made mapping Mars practical in the 1800s. Fr. Pietro Angelo Secchi, working at the Vatican Observatory, drew some of the first color maps of Mars.

Fr. Secchi described “channels” (canali in Italian) on the Martian surface in 1858. His canali were large features: like “Canale Atlantico,” his name for what we call Syrtis Major Planum.

Giovanni Schiaparelli mapped an extensive canali network 1877. He’d developed an impressively-detailed map by 1886. We still use many of his names for Martian features: like Hellas, Tharsis, and Chryse.

Schiaparelli identified Hellas, one of the Solar System’s largest impact basins, as a small continent or large island. Assuming that bright Martian features were land and dark areas water seemed reasonable at the time.

William Wallace Campbell’s 1894 spectral analysis showed no water in the Martian atmosphere. Folks named Martian feature 991, a crater 125.26 kilometers across, after him. Crater Campbell is centered at latitude -54.25°, longitude 165.58°.4

Crash-Landing on Barsoom


(From Giovanni Schiaparelli, From NASA’s “On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet. 1958-1978, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Giovanni Schiaparelli’s map of Mars, compiled 1877-1886.)

Percival Lowell was convinced that Schiaparelli’s canali were canals, artificial channels made by an advanced and dying Martian civilization.

Edgar Rice Burroughs published his first Barsoom story in 1912, and Mariner 4 sent back images of Martian craters in 1965.

We’ve been sending robot spaceships to Mars on a fairly regular basis since then.

Some are still in operation, including the ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter. That mission’s lander, Schiaparelli EDM lander, sent back quite a bit of data before crash-landing on the Meridiani Planum.

The lander probably hit at 300 kph, 186 miles per hour. I don’t think the lander mission was exactly a failure, though. The folks at ESA were testing the landing systems, collected a great deal of data; and that’s yet another topic.5

4. Aliens, an Opinion Poll; Serious SETI and CETI


(From Survata, used w/o permission.)

A Survata poll of Americans, done in 2013 or thereabouts, asked folks for their religious affiliation and then asked “Do you believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life?”6

Roughly a third of American Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and atheists/agnostics weren’t sure about whether we have neighbors.

Interestingly, over half of “other” “believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life.” That may help explain why some American Christians adamantly insist that life mustn’t exist anywhere except Earth.

Me? I’m not sure. We either have neighbors, or we don’t. Right now, we don’t know, and I’m okay with that.

I hope we do have neighbors. For one thing, it would make this universe seem a bit less empty.

For another, comparing notes with folks who aren’t human would be an opportunity to learn how much of ‘human nature’ comes from being critters with free will and bodies; and how much is strictly “human.”

My guess is that we’d learn that a great many of our neighbors are fine folks: but not “human.” At all. Which is why I think nearly every SETI and CETI effort makes unwarranted assumptions.

Herschel’s Solarians, Thousands of Cataloged Exoplanets

Earth’s moon and planets in the Solar system were as unreachable in the 19th century as planets circling other stars are today.

Scientists were learning more about these other worlds, and thought they might be inhabited. It wasn’t a new idea.

William Herschel presented “On the Nature of the Sun and Fixed Stars” to the Royal Society in 1795. He defended his view that our sun is a relatively dark object with a hot, luminous, atmosphere: and said it was probably inhabited, like other planets.7

That wasn’t a crackpot idea at the time.

We didn’t know about nuclear fission or fusion, in the late 18th century; and astrophysics was still learning that Aristotelian assumptions weren’t accurate.

We’ve learned quite a bit since then. William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, showed that our sun would have long since cooled off — if Earth was as old as geologists said and mid-19th-century scientists had uncovered everything there is to know about the universe.

They hadn’t.

Henri Becquerel observed radioactive decay in 1896. Ernest Rutherford, Paul Villard, the Curies, and others, discovered quite a few more radioactive substances. The last I heard, folks were still working the bugs out of practical fusion reactors.

Along the way, we’ve discovered and cataloged more than three thousand planets orbiting other stars: some of which are not all that unlike the one we live on.

We may learn that there’s something very different about the universe beyond our Solar System. But at this point, the question doesn’t seem to be whether there could be extraterrestrial life. It’s why we haven’t seen or heard from extraterrestrial intelligence.8

Assumptions and the Fermi Paradox

The Fermi paradox is the ‘where is everybody’ question. (September 18, 2016)

We’re learning that many of this galaxy’s 100,000,000,000-plus stars have planets somewhat like Earth. We’re finding planets around a remarkable number of them. Some fraction of those planets may support life, which might lead to intelligent life.

Some of those planets are billions of years older than Earth. Folks who are anything like us could have sent interstellar probes here from the other side of the galaxy in about a million years. That’s a very short time, on a cosmic scale.

Maybe the pessimists are right, and we’ll all die horribly right after you read this sentence: just like everybody else has, all over the universe.

I don’t think so, but living with undiagnosed major depression for most of my life has taught me to be dubious about anything that seems like fashionable melancholy or unconsidered pessimism, and that’s yet again another topic. (August 12, 2016)

Maybe Lovecraft was right, and it’s a good thing that we don’t know about Cthulhu. Oddly enough, I think that’s close to one of the more reasonable explanations for why we’re not up to our hips in the Galactic Federation equivalent of empty oil drums.

Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence: the Early Years

Humans are chatty creatures, so we were thinking up ways to communicate with Martians as soon as our technology and economic structures made it practical.

We like acronyms, so these days we call that sort of thing CETI, or communication with extraterrestrial intelligence.

Carl Friedrich Gauss, or maybe someone else, suggested planting enormous square fields of rye or wheat, outlined in pine forests, forming a giant triangle in Siberia: visual proof that we knew about the Pythagorean theorem.

Joseph Johann von Littrow had pretty much the same idea, except he figured the Sahara would be a better ‘blackboard.’ von Littrow’s proposal was to dig giant trenches, drawing 20-mile-wide shapes.

Filled with water, topped off with kerosene, and ignited, these trenches could send a different signal each night. (Wikipedia)

Bear in mind that radio and environmental impact statements hadn’t been invented yet.

We’ve learned a great deal since the Gauss/von Littrow proposal. Communications satellites routinely route radio messages around the world, and our robot spaceships send reports back by radio.

We’ve learned how to send radio signals to the stars, and have been listening for such signals. Maybe that will be how we make first contact, or maybe not.

Quite a bit of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, assumes that our neighbors, if they exist, use modulated radio signals for long-distance communications. That is an assumption. A big one.

A Million Years isn’t Much


(From Efbrazil, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

We’ve learned quite a bit since this was written:

3 Terrible and awesome are you, stronger than the ancient mountains.”
(Psalms 76:5)

We’ve learned that today’s “ancient mountains” aren’t nearly as old as our planet. But as I keep saying, scientific discoveries are opportunities for admiration of God’s work. (Catechism, 283, 341)

Earth has been around for about 4,540,000,000 years, give or take, and the universe is about three times older. On that scale, a million years isn’t much: 1/13,798th the age of the universe, or 1/4,540th Earth’s age.

I’m in my mid-60s, so 1/4,540th of my life is roughly one and three quarters to five days. Someone who had been born within a week of me would be almost exactly my age.

Let’s compare how many years before today a few key things happened:

On this scale, 154 years is a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ sort of interval.

A million years is a bit longer, bit still only 1/4,540th Earth’s age, and 1/13,798th as long as the universe has been around.

We’ve developed some remarkable tech since Acheulean tools were the latest thing. But I very strongly suspect that talking drums, slit gongs, and the Inmarsat network are not the ultimate communication technologies.

Even if our neighbors are only a million years ‘older’ or ‘younger’ than we are, their cutting-edge tech might be almond-shaped stone hand axes — or whatever we’ll be developing a million years from now.

That’s assuming that they think the same way we do, and are as chatty, and that’s still another topic, for another post.

The quote is from Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” among my favorite poems; and the source for my Google Plus tagline:

“…To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
“Beyond the utmost bound of human thought….”
(“Ulysses,” Tennyson (1833))

Still learning that there’s more to learn:


1 More about the Great Moon Hoax:

2 H. P. Lovecraft and all that:

3 Tennyson’s “Vastness” was originally published in Macmillan’s Magazine, November, 1885 (Vol.LII., pp. 1-4); reprinted in “Demeter, and Other Poems,” 1889. (“The Bibliography of Tennyson,” p. 61; Richard Herne Shepherd; Ardent Media (1896))

4 Mars in retrospect:

5 Mars, imagined; and current exploration:

6 Opinion polls are interesting, and can be useful; but I’m quite sure they measure opinion, not fact:

7 William Herschel and the Solarians is not a rock band:

8 Astrophysics, astrochemistry, and SETI:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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