To the Moon!

by Matthew Goodman (guest post)

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, most astronomers believed that intelligent life existed throughout the universe. The basis for this notion was less scientific than theological in nature: that God would not have created distant worlds without also placing intelligent beings there to appreciate them.

Given the widespread belief in extraterrestrial life, it was inevitable that a certain amount of attention would be devoted to imagining what such far-flung creatures might look like. According to one supposition of the time, inhabitants of planets such as Saturn and Jupiter might have eyes with enlarged pupils and highly sensitive retinas, to compensate for the reduced light from the sun. Asteroids, with their low gravitational forces, might be the home of giants (a notion contributed by the eminent British astronomer Sir John Herschel. The Scottish astronomical writer Thomas Dick suggested that creatures living on comets might have eyes with the power of telescopes, and--owing to their ceaseless travels through the universe--could well turn out to be a race of astronomers.

Still, as these questions were (at least for the moment) unanswerable, the astronomers of the time tended to fall back on the useful axiom that God would adapt his creatures to the conditions in which they had been placed. "Is it necessary that an immortal soul should be united to a skeleton of bone, or imprisoned in a cage of cartilage and of skin?" asked Sir David Brewster. "Must it see with two eyes, and hear with two ears, and touch with ten figers, and rest on a duality of limbs? May it not reside in a Polyphemus with one eyeball, or in an Argus with a hundred? May it not goven in the giant forms of the Titans, and direct the hundred hands of Briareus?".

"Of such speculations," noted John Herschel, sensibly enough, "there is no end."

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