The astronomer Frank Drake, born 1930 in Chicago in the United States, in 1961 devised the Drake Equation, an attempt to calculate the potential number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy. He has participated in an on-going search for signals of intelligent origin. While this line of work was initially associated with searching for radio waves from other civilizations, more recently those engaged in these matters have started looking for other types of signals, above all optical SETI. Very brief, but powerful pulses of laser light from other planetary systems can potentially carry immense amounts of concentrated information across vast distances of many light-years. Obviously, if extraterrestrial civilizations do exist, it is quite conceivable that they may be scientifically more sophisticated than we are today and may possess some forms of communication technology that are totally unknown to humans.- - - - - - - - -
The search for intelligent extraterrestrial life is not uncontroversial, especially when it comes to so-called “Active SETI” signals, where we beam signals into space in addition to passively recording signals we receive. The famous English astrophysicist Stephen Hawking believes that intelligent aliens are likely to exist, but fears that a visit by them to present-day humanity might have unfortunate consequences for us. “ We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet,” he argues. It is possible to imagine an alien civilization of nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach, instead of peaceful interstellar “philosopher kings.” Others find it implausible that aliens would travel across vast astronomical distances merely to colonize us.
The possibility of life beyond the Earth has been discussed for centuries. The English bishop and naturalist John Wilkins (1614-1672), who proposed a decimal system of weights and measures that foreshadowed the metric system, in The Discovery of a World in the Moone (1638) suggested that the Moon is a habitable world. He was not the first person to entertain such views, which had been suggested by some ancient Greek authors. No lesser man than Johannes Kepler had written a story The Dream (Somnium) where a human observer is transported to the Moon. Wilkins worked in the turbulent age of Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War and was associated with men who went on to found the Royal Society.
The author Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757), born in Rouen, Normandy, in northern France, in 1686 published Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes), which supported the heliocentric model of Copernicus and spoke of the possibility of life on other planets. The colorful German (Hanoverian) storyteller Baron Münchhausen (1720-1797), who had fought against the Turks for the Russian army, in his incredible and unlikely tales allegedly claimed to have personally visited the Moon. In From the Earth to the Moon (1865) by the great French science fiction author Jules Verne, three men travel to the Moon in a projectile launched from a giant cannon. William Henry Pickering (1858-1938) from the USA, brother of Edward Pickering and otherwise a fine astronomer, in the 1920s believed he could observe swarms of insects on the Moon’s surface.
In the 1870s the Italian scholar Giovanni Schiaparelli had observed geological features on Mars which he called canali, “channels.” This was mistranslated into English as artificial “canals,” which fueled speculations about the possibility of intelligent life on that planet.
The English author H. G. Wells in 1898 published the influential science fiction novel The War of the Worlds, where the Earth is invaded by technologically superior Martians who eventually succumb not to our guns, but to our bacteria and microscopic germs, which we had evolved immunity against but they had not. In 1938, when commercial radio was in its first generation, a drama adoption of Wells’ novel caused panic in the USA, as thousands of radio listeners believed that it depicted a real, ongoing invasion. The man behind the broadcast, the American director Orson Welles (1915-1985), also wrote, directed, produced and acted in Citizen Kane from 1941, hailed as one of the best films from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
One of the earliest science fiction films, inspired by the writings of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, was the black and white silent movie A Trip to the Moon from 1902 by the French filmmaker Georges Méliès (1861-1938). The Austrian-born motion-picture director Fritz Lang (1890-1976) created the costly silent film Metropolis in Germany in 1927. In the commercially successful Hollywood production E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial from 1982, directed by the influential American Jewish film director and producer Steven Spielberg (born 1946), a boy befriends a stranded, but friendly extraterrestrial and helps him to return home.
The American planetary scientist and science writer Carl Sagan (1934-1996), born in New York City, won enormous popularity as well as some criticism as a popularizer of astronomy and was a contributor to NASA’s Mariner, Viking, Voyager and Galileo expeditions to the planets. “ He helped solve the mysteries of the high temperatures of Venus (answer: massive greenhouse effect), the seasonal changes on Mars (answer: windblown dust), and the reddish haze of Titan (answer: complex organic molecules).” The Ukrainian astrophysicist Iosif Shklovsky in the Soviet Union was one of the first major scientists to propose serious examination of the possibility of extraterrestrial life. His book Intelligent Life in the Universe was translated and expanded by Carl Sagan, whose father was a Russian Jewish immigrant.
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Previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.