27 February 2021

Scientific American: “Until recently, People accepted the ‘Fact’ of Aliens in the Solar System”

In other words, in many quarters there was no “are we alone?” question being asked, instead the debate was already onto the details of how the life elsewhere in the cosmos went about its business.

In the 1700s and 1800s we had astronomers like William Herschel, or the more amateur Thomas Dick, not only proposing that our solar system, from the Moon to the outer planets, was overrun with lifeforms (Dick holding the record by suggesting that Saturn’s rings held around 8 trillion individuals) but convincing themselves that they could see the evidence. Herschel, with his good telescopes, becoming convinced that there were forests on the Moon, in the Mare humorum, and speculating that the Sun’s dark spots were actually holes in a glowing hot atmosphere, beneath which, a cool surface supported large alien beings.

Even though we might question some of their scientific standards, people like Herschel and Dick were indeed following the philosophy of life being everywhere, and elevating it to the level of any other observable phenomenon. Herschel was also applying the best scientific instruments he could at the time.

Caleb A. Scharf

The debate around the existence of extraterrestrial life has been reignited recently after the Israeli astronomer Avi Loeb doubled down on his hypothesis that the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua is in fact a light sail transiting our solar system. There is little hard evidence to support such a claim, and to me this resembles a publicity stunt to promote other projects he is involved in, such as Breakthrough Starshot.

But nevertheless this discussion reveals some of the ingrained assumptions shared by the public and the astronomical community, namely that ‘intelligent life is out there, we just haven’t been able to find it yet’. The article above adds an intriguing perspective, recalling that, as recently as decades ago, the idea that other solar system bodies are inhabited by aliens was widespread in the scientific community. Early science-fiction novels featured various beings living in the solar system as well, mainly on Mars, but also on Venus or Titan. Just as fellow sentient beings in the solar system were disproven as observation methods improved, we should be open to the possibility that we won’t discover alien life in the wider cosmos either – not soon, and maybe not ever. Other civilizations may be too rare, or too far apart, to ever have a chance of contacting each other.

Is ‘Oumuamua Alien Technology?

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