Right now, the best candidates we have for finding alien life are some sort of fossilized bacteria on Mars. If we’re lucky, there might be microbes on Europa, though it won’t be easy to get to them.
In centuries past, people knew a lot less about space, so they came up with significantly more elaborate possibilities about the aliens we might find there.
10 • Camille Flammarion’s Alien Afterlife
French astronomer Camille Flammarion supported Percival Lowell’s theories about canals on Mars. When some scientists did an experiment suggesting Lowell was seeing an optical illusion, Flammarion repeated the experiment to try and prove them wrong.
He believed Martians would be superior humans, due to how low a bar we’d set through our habit of war and how “we cannot even agree on a universal calendar.” He suggested creatures on the red planet may have tried to communicate with us when we were still hunting mammoths, but they got no response and gave up. He concluded, “I would like to go to Mars, it must be an interesting place.”
He believed the Moon was likely inhabited. He speculated about aliens in light of Darwin’s groundbreaking theories and came up with the idea of a race of sentient plants that combine digestion and respiration into one process. A mystic, he believed that after death, the soul would travel from one planet to another in pursuit of perfection. That belief had started in the Enlightenment, and Flammarion kept it alive into the 20th century.
This belief is reflected in a piece of fiction he wrote, in which he describes a dead man named Lumen finding himself on a far world. Lumen arrives at a mountain, covered with palaces woven from trees, from which he can see the Sun and planets as distant stars. At the summit of the mountain town, 20 or 30 old men stand staring into the sky, criticizing the terrible human violence their magical eyes can see going on in Paris.
9 • Mormon Moon Men
Many tales relate to Mormon beliefs of life on other worlds, some more reliable than others. The most common, often put forward by critics of the church, is that Joseph Smith claimed that the Moon was inhabited. These Moon-men dressed like Quakers and lived for 1,000 years. The story was first told by a Mormon named Oliver Huntington, who’d written it in his journal in 1881.
It’s not a reliable record of what Smith believed, but it’s not implausible. Sermons from Joseph Smith’s brother Hyum in 1843 said: “Sun and Moon is inhabited.” Brigham Young, the church’s second president, preached in 1870 that there was “no question” that the Sun was made to give light to its own inhabitants, as well as to those on Earth and elsewhere.
8 • William Herschel
British scientist William Herschel is one of the most important astronomers in history. Among his discoveries were Uranus, several of Saturn’s moons, infrared radiation, and binary star systems. He was also obsessed with the idea of extraterrestrial life, particularly on the Moon.
In the 1770s, he wrote in his journal that he’d seen forests and pastures on the lunar surface. He later believed he’d seen canals and patches of vegetation. Yet it was craters that most caught Herschel’s imagination. He built the largest telescope in history to that point, and he saw perfectly round structures unlike anything anyone had seen before. He called them “circuses” and pondered “perhaps, then on the Moon every town is one very large Circus?”
Herschel’s thoughts on Lunarians (as he called them) weren’t known until after his death. Some of his contemporaries were less shy. Franz von Paula Gruituisen published three papers in the mid-1820s detailing the colossal buildings, animal tracks, roads, cities, and temples he’d found. Yet they all paled in comparison to the discoveries attributed to William Herschel’s son John, himself a famed astronomer, who was said to have built a telescope powerful enough to study lunar insects. Sadly, those claims were part of one of history’s most infamous hoaxes.