December 17, 1900 The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

On 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.

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 reason or purpose, asking only “what circumstances caused this event?”

Philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates took a less mechanistic approach, asking “What purpose did this event serve?” Plato disliked Democritus so much that he wanted to burn all his books.

The prevailing view throughout antiquity was that our planet is special, that we are alone in the cosmos.  Democritus believed there were infinite numbers of worlds such as our own, with inhabitants like ourselves.

In the time of Copernicus, it was 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 intelligent life had once 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 a popular near-certainty that canals were excavated by 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.

6a00d83542d51e69e201b8d160dcaf970c-500wiEarly radio experiments by Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi left both inventors believing they had picked up, in Marconi’s words, “queer sounds and indications, which might come from somewhere outside the earth.”

In 1924, the idea was put to the test.  Believing that martians might attempt to communicate on the day the two bodies were in closest proximity, August 21, 1924 became “National Radio Silence Day”.  Americans were urged to observe “radio silence” for the first five minutes of every hour, while a radio receiver at the U.S. Naval Observatory, two miles aloft on board a dirigible, listened for the signal that never came.

20171023_wow-cc_f840The British author H. G. Wells wrote the War of the Worlds in 1897, telling the story of an alien earth invasion by Martians fleeing the desiccation of their own planet.  The story was adapted to a radio drama broadcast on Halloween, 1938, a production 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”.


The website explains the 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”.

With an original objective of 50,000-100,000 home computers, SETI@home had 1,525,050 users as of January 2015.  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 most “work units”.

You, too can participate at, on your Windows, Apple or Network PC, or your Sony PlayStation 3.  Please let me know if you make contact.

October 30, 1938 War of the Worlds

Traffic was jammed in both directions in the little town of Grover’s Mill, NJ, as locals tried to get out, and curiosity seekers came to see what Martians looked like.

34.6 million miles distant, the Red Planet is our nearest neighbor in the solar system. It was the God of Death to the Babylonians of 3000BC, lending its name to the war gods of Greek and Roman antiquity alike.

In the 19th century, amateur astronomer Percival Lowell was convinced that he saw canals on Mars, evidence of some great civilization. In 1898, H.G. Wells published a book about a Martian invasion of earth, beginning with a landing in England. On this day in 1938, the Mercury Theater of the Air brought that story to life.

1920s-radioThe radio drama began with a statement that what followed was fictional.  The warning was repeated at the 40 and 55-minute mark, and again at the end of the broadcast. It began with a weather report, and then went to a dance band remote, featuring “Ramon Raquello and his orchestra”. The music was periodically interrupted by live “news” flashes, beginning with strange explosions on Mars. Producer Orson Welles made his first radio appearance as the “famous” (but non-existent) Princeton Professor Dr. Richard Pierson, who dismissed speculation about life on Mars.

A short time later, another “news flash” reported that there had been a fiery crash in Grovers Mill, NJ. What was originally thought to be a meteorite was revealed to be a rocket machine as a tentacled, pulsating Martian unscrewed the hatch and incinerated the crowd with a death ray.

mars1The dramatic technique was brilliant. Welles had his cast listen to the Hindenburg tape, explaining that was the “feel” that he wanted in his broadcast. Fictional on-the-spot reporter Carl Phillips describes the death ray in the same rising crescendo, only to be cut off in mid-sentence as it’s turned on him.

The 60-minute play unfolds with Martians wiping out a militia unit sent against them, and finally attacking New York City with poison gas.

Despite repeated notices that the broadcast was fictional, it’s been estimated that as many as 1.2 million thought the news was real. According to Grovers Mill folklore, a local named William Dock shot a water tower, mistaking it for a Martian in the moonlight. Traffic was jammed in both directions in the little town, as locals tried to get out, and curiosity seekers came to see what a Martian looked like.

images (5) The New York Times reported on Oct. 31, “In Newark, in a single block at Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, more than 20 families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid. Some began moving household furniture”.

The USA Today newspaper, reporting on the 75th anniversary of the broadcast, reported “The broadcast … disrupted households, interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and clogged communications systems,”

Then as today, supposed “victims” of the broadcast and their lawyers lined up to get paid for “mental anguish” and “personal injury”. All suits were dismissed, except for a claim for a pair of black men’s shoes, size 9B, by a Massachusetts man who had spent his shoe money to escape the Martians. Welles thought the man should be paid.

In the end, the War of the Worlds was what the broadcast described itself to be. A Halloween concoction. The equivalent of dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying, ‘Boo!’.