Alien Creatures Science Fiction or Fact

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From the start of the scientific revolution until the dawn of the space age (in 1957), the issue of whether alien life-forms inhabited other worlds in the solar system or possibly existed on planets around other stars resided primarily in the realm of science fiction. While a few scientists began to lay the foundations of exobiology in the 20th century by investigating conditions that could have started life in the primitive chemical soup of an ancient Earth, until the 1950s, most mainstream scientists politely skirted the topic of alien life. As discussed in this chapter and elsewhere in the book, there were, however, several notable exceptions, including Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), Svante August Arrhenius (1859-1927), Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli (1835-1910), Percival Lowell (1855-1916), and Enrico Fermi (1901-54).

Science fiction is a form of fiction in which technical developments and scientific discoveries represent an important part of the plot or story background. Frequently, science fiction involves the prediction of future possibilities that are based on new scientific discoveries or technical breakthroughs. Some of the most popular science-fiction predictions that are waiting to happen are the discovery of alien life-forms, interstellar travel, contact with extraterrestrial civilizations, the development of exotic propulsion or communication devices that might permit people to break the speed-of-light barrier, travel forward or backward in time, and self-aware machines and robots. From the perspective of contemporary physics, some of these anticipated breakthroughs, such as superluminal travel, could prove impossible because of the physical laws and limits of the universe. Other developments, such as very intelligent machines, might take place faster than currently imagined.

According to the well-known writer Isaac Asimov (1920-92), one very important aspect of science fiction is not just its ability to predict a particular technical breakthrough but rather its ability to predict change itself through technology. Change plays a very important role in modern life. People who are responsible for societal planning must not only con-

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600)

As a fiery philosopher and writer, the former Dominican monk Giordano Bruno managed to antagonize authorities throughout western Europe by adamantly supporting such politically sensitive and religiously unpopular (at the time) concepts as the heliocentric cosmology of Nicolaus Copernicus, the infinite size of the universe, and the existence of intelligent life on other worlds. While a member of the Dominican religious order, he had an abrasive personality and nurtured the tendency to voice his own, often extremely unpopular, opinions boldly to the annoyance of his fellow monks. To avoid prosecution for heresy, Bruno left the Dominican order when he was 28 years old and fled from Italy.

For the next 15 years, he traveled about Europe and continued to express his controversial thoughts, alienating local authorities wherever he spoke. His self-destructive, belligerent manner eventually brought him back to Italy—a fatal mistake that placed him in the legal grasp of the Roman Inquisition. After an eight-yearlong trial, an uncompromising Bruno was finally convicted of heresy by the Roman Inquisition and burned to death at the stake in Campo de' Fiore square in Rome on February 17, 1600.

The often quoted passage in Bruno's controversial work On the Infinite Universe and Worlds (1584) states: "Innumerable suns exist; innumerable earths revolve around these suns in a manner similar to the way the seven planets revolve around our sun. Living beings inhabit these worlds." Some science historians use this passage to treat Bruno as a martyr to science and a hero of the scientific revolution. Other science historians point out that he was not an astronomer and that the basic theme of this controversial work dealt much more with his personal cosmology, based on pantheism, than with the emerging Copernican hypothesis. In fact, the ecclesiastical authorities in Rome did not formally ban the Copernican hypothesis until several years after Bruno's execution, so his alleged support for Copernican (heliocentric) cosmology may not have been the immediate cause of his death sentence.

Unlike the heresy trial of Galileo Galilei, which is well documented, the records stating the exact charges brought against Bruno during his lengthy trial for heresy in the last decade of the 16th century have been lost. So, more than four centuries after his fiery demise in a public execution, Giordano Bruno still remains a controversial personality in the history of science and in the advocacy of the existence of life beyond Earth.

sider how things are now but also how they will (or at least might) be in the upcoming decades. Gifted science-fiction writers, such as Jules Verne (1828-1905), Herbert George (H. G.) Wells (1866-1946), Isaac Asimov, and Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917- ), also serve society as skilled technical prophets who help many people to peek at tomorrow before it arrives.

For example, the famous French writer Jules Verne wrote De la Terre a la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon) in 1865, an account of a human voyage to the Moon from a Floridian launch site near a place that Verne called "Tampa Town." A little more than 100 years later, directly across the state from the modern city of Tampa, the once isolated regions of the east-central Florida coast shook to the mighty roar of a Saturn V rocket. The crew of NASA's Apollo 11 mission had embarked from Earth, and people were to walk for the first time on the lunar surface. Verne's amazing stories stimulated interest in space travel and gave birth to the literary form of science fiction. He was followed by such other writers as H. G. Wells, who embellished their science-fiction stories with alien creatures in a variety of forms—often hostile to human beings and desirous of taking over Earth.

The basic roots of contemporary science fiction (books, motion pictures, and television shows) are found in scientific possibilities, not in magic or mysticism, but the boundary lines that separate future scientific reality, entertaining science fiction, and pure fantasy are incredibly blurred in an age where generational steps in technical progress occur in years versus decades, centuries, or even millennia. Arthur C. Clarke's often quoted third law of technical prophecy states: "Truly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Ask anyone who was a child in the 1930s if they ever imagined people actually traveling into space, using personal electronic computers, or having robots assist surgeons during minimally invasive surgeries. Yet all such "fantastic ideas" are part of today's technical reality. The detection of extraterrestrial life, no matter how primitive, is one of those sciencefiction themes or subgenres that could easily become science fact within the next few decades.

From the mid 19th century forward, actual scientific progress often stimulated science-fiction stories that reached just beyond the boundaries of the known or achievable. One example of this synergistic relationship occurred when the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli published a detailed map of the surface of Mars in 1877. He based this influential publication on a set of very precise astronomical observations of

The Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli (1835-1910) made careful observations of the planet Mars in the 1870s. As commemorated here on this 1974 Hungarian postage stamp, he produced a detailed map of the Red Planet's surface, including some straight markings, which he described as "canaW—the Italian word meaning "channels." Mistakenly translated into English as canals, Schiaparelli's work helped launch a frantic search for "canals" on Mars by some astronomers, who mistakenly considered such surface features as artifacts of an ancient, intelligent civilization. (Author)

The Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli (1835-1910) made careful observations of the planet Mars in the 1870s. As commemorated here on this 1974 Hungarian postage stamp, he produced a detailed map of the Red Planet's surface, including some straight markings, which he described as "canaW—the Italian word meaning "channels." Mistakenly translated into English as canals, Schiaparelli's work helped launch a frantic search for "canals" on Mars by some astronomers, who mistakenly considered such surface features as artifacts of an ancient, intelligent civilization. (Author)

Mars, which he performed earlier that year. An excellent observational astronomer, Schiaparelli dutifully described some straight markings as canali—meaning "channels" in Italian.

Unfortunately, when his description of such linear features on Mars was translated into English, the word canali improperly became canals. Some astronomers, most notably the wealthy U.S. astronomer Percival Lowell, completely misunderstood the true meaning of Schiaparelli's observations and launched a zealous telescopic search for the supposed canals that represented the handiwork of a neighboring intelligent alien civilization on the Red Planet. Schiaparelli never endorsed Lowell's extensive extrapolation of some of his best work in planetary astronomy. Yet, this erroneous interpretation of his canali in an otherwise excellent observational report about Mars is how most people remember the Italian astronomer. Schiaparelli's good astronomical work can also be viewed as starting an "alien stampede," in which the notion of intelligent extraterrestrial creatures, benign and malevolent, became more palpable and credible in both the science fact and fiction literature.

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