In the 5th century BC, the Greek philosopher Democritus taught that the world was made of atoms. Physically indestructible and always in motion, these atoms are infinite in number, differing only in shape and size. Democritus taught that everything around us is the result of physical laws without reasoning or purpose. He asked only “what earlier circumstances caused this event?” Philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates took a less mechanistic approach, asking “What purpose did this event serve?”, while Plato disliked him so much he wanted to burn all his books.
Democritus also taught that there are an infinite number of worlds with inhabitants like us, though the prevailing view in antiquity was that the Earth was special, that we are alone.
In the time of Copernicus in the 1600s, it became widely believed that there is life on other planets. Astronomers saw several features of the moon as evidence, if not of life, then at least that intelligence had at one time paid a visit.
Interest in Mars began to develop in the 1870s, when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli described physical features of the red planet as “canali”. The word means “channels” in Italian, but it was mis-translated as “canals”. The English speaking world was off to the races.
Speculation and folklore about intelligent life on Mars was soon replaced by the popular concept that canals had been excavated by intelligent Martians.
The idea was near universal by the turn of the century. On this day, December 17, 1900, the French Academy of Science offered a prize of 100,000 francs to the first person to make contact with an alien civilization, provided that it was anything but Martian. That was considered too easy.
The British author H. G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds in 1897, telling the story of an alien invasion of earth by Martians fleeing from the desiccation of their planet. The story was adapted to a radio drama broadcast on Halloween, 1938, so realistic that many listeners sued the network for “mental anguish” and “personal injury”.
The idea of life on Mars persisted until the 1960s, when close observations of the Martian surface were made possible by the Mariner series of spacecraft.
While much of “mainstream” science seems to steer clear of the subject, the University of California at Berkeley is running a “distributed computing effort” to identify extraterrestrial life, called SETI@home. With an original objective of 50,000-100,000 home computers, SETI@home currently operates on over 5.2 million computers. With the introduction of the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, or “BOINC” (I didn’t make that up), SETI@home users can even compete with one another, to see who can process the maximum number of “work units”.
The website explains their mission: “SETI@home is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). You can participate by running a free program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data”.
You, too can participate at http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/, on your Windows, Apple or Network PC, or your Sony PlayStation 3. Please feel free to insert the “there-is-no-intelligent-life-here” joke of your choice HERE.