Fantastically Wrong: The Scientist Who Thought 22 Trillion Aliens Live in Our Solar System
In 1837, the Scottish scientist Thomas Dick had a big idea. A really, really big idea: Build “a huge triangle or ellipsis of many miles in extent, in Siberia or any other country.” He figured that because there are some 22 trillion aliens living in our solar system, 4.2 billion of which are on the moon, even if they don’t have telescope technology to spy the triangle, surely some would have eyes powerful enough to see it unaided. Perhaps realizing just what a big idea this was, he added, “Schemes far more foolish and preposterous than the above have been contrived and acted upon in every age of the world.”
Here’s what Dick figured. At the time, there were an average of 280 people per square mile in England. And because he thought every surface of our universe bears life, it would naturally occur at roughly the same population density. So from comets and asteroids to the rings of Saturn, if you knew how big something was, you could guess how many beings live there. Thus, Jupiter would be the most populated object in the solar system, with 7 trillion beings. The least populated would be Vesta, the second largest asteroid in the asteroid belt, tallying just 64 million.
Dick, you see, was a very religious man, but also a voracious scientist, one of the last of the so-called natural theologists, who looked for signs of God’s influence in nature. For Dick, it simply did not make sense for God to have created the cosmos just to have it sit around unoccupied. There must be creatures out there capable of enjoying its beauty, because God wants all his work appreciated.
In his book Celestial Scenery, which when it isn’t rambling is actually quite interesting, Dick writes: “This is a conclusion which is not merely probable, but absolutely certain, for the opposite opinion would rob the Deity of the most distinguishing attribute of his nature, by virtually denying him the perfection of infinite wisdom and intelligence.”
If you think waterfalls and sunsets here on Earth are neato, Dick promises you’ll be floored by what you’d see on other planets. “What should we think of a globe appearing in our nocturnal sky 1,300 times larger than the apparent size of the moon, and every hour assuming a different aspect?” he asked. “What should we think of a globe filling the twentieth part of the sky, and surrounded with immense rings, in rapid motion, diffusing a radiance over the whole heavens?” It’s a lovely image, isn’t it? These are also scenes we see realized in modern sci-fi—from a brain that was ticking fully two centuries ago.
You might think that living on other worlds might be difficult, but Dick assures us they’re arranged much like Earth, with mountains and valleys and such. The moon in particular has “an immense variety of elevations and depressions,” and while we can’t directly observe such features on Jupiter, Saturn, or Uranus, given their distance, when light hits them it reveals “the spots and differences of shade and color which are sometimes distinguishable on their disks,” thus betraying the uneven surfaces underneath. (We know today, of course, that these are all in fact gas giants.)
The gas giants aren’t really this close to each other. They have pretty big personal space bubbles. NASA/Wikimedia
God also provides atmospheres on other planetary bodies, “but we have no reason to conclude that they are exactly similar to ours.” Mars’ atmosphere, for example, is denser than our own, bestowing the planet that lovely red hue (it’s actually less dense). Others may be so thin that they allow their inhabitants to “penetrate much farther into space than we can do,” with the added bonus that such an atmosphere could “raise their spirits to the highest pitch of ecstasy, similar to some of the effects produced on our frame by inhaling that gaseous fluid called the nitrous oxyde.” Yes, he actually wrote that, complete with the superfluous “the,” like your grandpa decrying “the hip-hop” and “the reefers.”
There is, though, the rather glaring problem of the crushing gravity of a planet the size of Saturn. But Dick posits that “the density of Jupiter is little more than that of water, and that of Saturn about the density of cork.” Jupiter, therefore, would have a gravity only twice as great as Earth’s—not so terrible in the grand scheme of things.
For as bizarre as all this may seem, notice how scientific Dick was about his theory. This was not mere daydreaming. He had numbers, and he had principles, and with them he formulated a wildly wrong idea, but nevertheless pieced it together fairly logically. And he wasn’t even the first scientist to argue that life existed elsewhere in our solar system. Far from it: It was none other than the famed astronomer William Herschel who argued that not only was there life on every planet, but on the sun as well. That blinding glow we see is simply a luminous atmosphere hiding a rocky surface that teemed with life.
And oddly enough, it was Herschel’s son John who indirectly eclipsed Dick in an epic way.
The Great American Tradition of Newspapers That You Can’t Even Remotely Trust
According to Paul Collins in his book Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World, on August 21, 1835, the New York Sun dropped a bombshell of a story: Astronomer Sir John Herschel had erected an enormous telescope in South Africa that could magnify celestial bodies an astounding 42,000 times. And when he pointed it at the moon he saw a field of poppies.
It was all just a hoax, but the issue sold like mad. And so, four days later, the paper dropped another bombshell: Herschel next saw bison on the moon. And not just bison, but monsters of “bluish lead color, about the size of a goat, with a head and beard like him, and a single horn, slightly inclined forward from the perpendicular.” Not only that, but bipedal beavers as tall as humans. Based on the Sun’s account, Collins describes them “skating gracefully among their villages of tall huts, which all had chimneys, showing them to be acquainted with the use of fire.”
Then on August 28th came the kicker. Herschel had spotted humans up there on the moon—4-foot-tall humans “with short and glossy copper-colored hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane,” the Sun reported. They had built giant sapphire pyramids, and apparently had a fondness for cucumbers. Perhaps more importantly for the hoaxster journalists—Richard Adams Locke (a descendent of philosopher John Locke) and Sun publisher Moses Beach—The New York Times and New York Evening Post endorsed the claims as entirely plausible. So it seemed a good a time as any for the men to compile their stories into a book: Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel at the Cape of Good Hope, 60,000 copies of which sold out in a flash.
Great Moon Hoax 1835
Locke eventually made the mistake of confiding his secret to a journalist friend (as if you needed another reminder not to trust journalists with secrets), and the whole thing fell to pieces. The Sun, ever the champion of the public good, claimed, no joke, that it was actually all a public service… to get the nation to stop worrying so much for a second about that whole slavery thing.
Dick died in 1857, and his books on the many beings of the universe went out of print not long after, due at least in part, according to Collins, to the fact that “Dick’s narrative became almost less credible than Locke’s.” The compiled newspaper hoaxes went through five editions, the last published in 1871.
And just two years after Dick’s death, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Dick’s brand of natural theology, long on the wane, would not survive it. Darwin had put forth a shocking theory (for Victorian minds, at least) that explained life as we know it without a creator. Even true scientists with strong allegiances to God, like Richard Owen, who famously battled Darwin’s blasphemous idea to his death, were snuffed by the intellectual tsunami that was evolution by natural selection.
Today it seems extraordinarily unlikely that the solar system is home to 22 trillion beings scattered across the planets and asteroids (unless they’re microbes). But one of Dick’s ideas strikes me as particularly insightful: Intelligent inhabitants of Venus are blessed by God with enormous mountains, which they might climb to enjoy the vista. OK, not that bit specifically, but the idea that we “need not imagine there will be any great difficulty in ascending such lofty eminences; for the inhabitants of such worlds may be furnished with bodies different from those of the human race, and endowed with locomotive powers far superior to ours.”
Today, we expect the very same of our aliens. No, we don’t have any evidence of their existence, but we can be pretty confident that if it were possible to survive the insanely hot surface of Venus, life would have to look a whole lot different than what we have on Earth. More realistically, we can only imagine what life might look like in the icy seas of Jupiter’s moon Europa.
I’m willing to bet it isn’t bipedal beavers, though.