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Sunday 7 August 2011

The man who invented aliens

Some concepts are so deeply ingrained in modern culture that it's difficult to imagine that someone, at some point in history, must have invented them. Take aliens for example. Aliens, as everyone knows, come from a planet orbiting the star Zeta Reticuli. Or possibly Alpha Draconis. Or Tau Ceti. Or Sirius, or one of the Pleiades. At any rate, they come from another planet, orbiting some star other than the Sun. That's the idea, anyway (aliens being purely hypothetical and/or fictional). But where did the idea come from, and when?

The Bible contains lots of references to the stars, but it doesn't give any indication that they're extremely distant objects of comparable size to the Sun, or that they might be associated with inhabited planets. The Biblical account of creation only really makes sense if the universe is quite a small place, not much larger than the Earth itself. The stars are just tiny points of light fixed to a spherical sky, with heaven on the other side of it (as depicted on the left, in a fresco painted in the 1370s by Giusto de Menabuoi).

Not all cultures have taken quite such a narrow-minded view as this: for example the Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian and Chinese civilizations all seem to have had more realistic views of the size of the universe and the true nature of the stars. But Europe persisted with the "small universe" theory. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543) famously demoted the Earth from its place at the centre of the universe... but he put the Sun there instead, which is just as parochial. Copernicus still imagined that the other stars were smaller and less important than the Sun.

The real revolutionary, as far as European cosmology was concerned, was the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600). He believed in an infinite universe, of which the solar system was just an infinitesimally small part. It was Bruno who introduced the idea that the stars are other suns, and that they might have their own planets orbiting around them... and that these planets might be inhabited. In other words, Giordano Bruno was the man who invented aliens.

Bruno's key work in this context was De l'infinito universo et Mondi ("On the Infinite Universe and Worlds"), published in 1584. The whole book is concerned with "the plurality of worlds", but one quote is enough to give an idea of Bruno's view on the subject: "For it is impossible that a rational being, fairly vigilant, can imagine that these innumerable worlds, manifest as like to our own or yet more magnificent, should be destitute of similar and even superior inhabitants."

Nowadays it goes without saying that Earth is the archetypal planet, and the phrase "other planets" refers to planets other than the Earth. But before Bruno, the word "planet" simply referred to one of the five planets visible in the sky: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter or Saturn... not the Earth at all. As late as 1640 an Englishman named John Wilkins published "A Discourse concerning a New Planet" -- and the new planet in question was the Earth! That sounds ludicrously obvious now, but it's another example of a concept we take for granted today, which was far from obvious in the past.

In the end, Giordano Bruno was tried by the Inquisition for heresy -- and, since he refused to recant, he was burnt at the stake on 17th February 1600. It's cool to think (as many people do) that he was put to death because of his belief in the plurality of worlds -- the first ever martyr to science fiction, as it were. However, this is far from proven. Bruno was a prolific writer throughout his life, and almost everything he wrote was designed to annoy the Church in one way or another. According to A New and General Biographical Dictionary (1798): "Though he denied the being of a God, he believed the effects of magic and sorcery".


PoissonPete said...

"... they come from another planet ..."
With some exceptions, such as:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating as always Andrew. Didn't the Buddha talk about other worlds with lifeforms?

Andrew May said...

Good question, and one that I deliberately avoided because it's one I don't fully understand. The Buddha certainly did talk about other realms of existence with other types of beings in them, but this was just following the common belief in the India of his time. I'm not sure whether they considered these beings "real" (in the way humans are) or merely symbolic (in the way the more sophisticated Greek philosophers thought of their mythical beings). Later Buddhist writers also talk about other realms and other world systems, but I think these are just considered to be different continua that you can be "reborn" into, rather than distant parts of the same continuum that you could hypothetically travel to. But I don't really know, which is why I didn't mention it! When you go back far enough in time, or to different cultures, the borderline between the physical world an the supernatural often becomes much more blurred than we think of it. This is also my excuse for not mentioning the "energy beings" that Pete referred to!

Luke The Drifter said...

You're probably aware that on this subject, Bruno's real conflict was with the Aristotelian natural science which had been adopted by the scientists of the day, rather than with the Bible. This was also the case with Galileo, for example.

Said scientists *claiming* a Scriptural basis is neither here nor there if they were mistaken.

I only mention this because your otherwise fine article seems to indicate the contrary. There are, of course, answers to the misinformed charges sometimes brought against Biblical cosmology. One good place to start is
if you'd like to look into it.

Having said that, I really do appreciate the article. Thank you and keep up the good work!

Andrew May said...

Thanks - I was vaguely aware of the point you make, but I'm not an expert in that area. I've read that the Church (and even the Inquisition) were, contrary to modern opinion, fairly laid back about things like cosmology and the exact details of Creation. The things they were really bothered by were deviant spiritual beliefs, concerning the nature of God etc. Way back in the early days of Christianity, St Augustine said something to the effect that Christians shouldn't make ridiculous statements about the physical world, based on a too-literal reading of scripture, which could easily be refuted by observation or logic... because it just makes non-Christians laugh at them and ignore the important spiritual messages of the scriptures.

Matt Cardin said...

Loved the article, many thanks. Regarding questions of Buddhism, Christianity, and other worlds and beings, I find it perpetually fascinating that

1) Buddhism on the whole is famous for its anti-imaginal emphasis, something noted by, e.g., depth psychologist Sandra Lee Dennis in EMBRACE OF THE DAIMON. Buddhists (again, on the whole) have traditionally acknowledged the existence of other worlds in the forms of other realms or levels of being beyond phenomenal reality that are populated by real beings, but, as Terrence McKenna put it in a talk at Esalen that was very recently published by the Psychdelic Salon podcast, the attitude has been along the lines of, "Yes, yes, many worlds, many beings, no big deal."

2) Christianity in its official historical-institutional form strode deliberately toward, and finally accomplished, an official banning and rejection of the imaginal/intermediate/daimonic realm and all of its inhabitants, in the interest of promoting the absolute rule of the one Holy Ghost as the sole "other" in the psyche.

I can't help but speculate that this all contributed to the aforementioned tendency for Christian rulers and thinkers to insist on false and ridiculous assertions about the literal/factual level of reality. Having done away with the daimonic and flattened the world ontologically, they then sought to flatten it even physically.

But the real point it: Thank you again for the absorbing article. I've just discovered your blog, and will certainly be back for more.

Andrew May said...

Matt - Thanks very much for the kind words about the blog and your thoughtful comments. I'll take a look at your own stuff - it looks interesting.

I agree with your sentiments entirely, by the way... if I was put in charge of a religion that aspired to endure for centuries, I would stick to spiritual truths -- the last thing I would do is make dogmatic pronouncements about the physical world that future scientists might disprove!