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ET Phones Home in the Fifteenth Century? July 18, 2010

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback









Beachcombing has been thrilled by correspondence over his posts and hopes to put up the useful (as opposed to the merely nice or amusing) ones towards the end of this month. However, he has been disappointed by the almost complete silence over some of his early pieces from the sticky edge of astronomy including marchers on the Moon (deduced by a twentieth-century bookworm), Beachcombing’s personal favourite ‘the spokes of Venus’ and, though there were several quizzical emails here,  vegetation on Mars (glimpsed through a nineteenth-century telescope).

In the interests of bringing astronomy back to the vanguard he thought that today he would quote from an unusual astronomical reference in the fifteenth-century works of Nicholas of Cusa. Nicholas taught at Cologne and was later made cardinal. He also wrote one of the most attractively titled books in history Concerning Learned Ignorance (De Docta Ignorantia) that is pretty much (the title not the contents, see below) everything that Beachcombing believes.

Here is the first detailed discussion that Beachcombing knows of – instead of some abstract faffing among the pre-Socratic Greeks – concerning the details of life on other worlds. As such it is part of the history of humanity’s relations not only with ‘the great beyond’ but also with itself.

Nor can place furnish an argument for the earth’s baseness. Life, as it exists here on earth in the form of men, animals and plants, is to be found, let us suppose, in a higher form in the solar and stellar regions. Rather than think that so many stars and parts of the heavens are uninhabited and that this earth of ours alone is peopled — and that with beings, perhaps, of an inferior type — we will suppose that in every region there are inhabitants, differing in nature by rank and all owing their origin to God, who is the centre and circumference of all stellar regions. Now, even if inhabitants of another kind should exist in the other stars, it seems inconceivable that, in the line of nature, anything more noble and perfect could be found than the intellectual nature that exists here on this earth and its region. The fact is that man has no longing for any other nature but desires only to be perfect in his own.

Were we to suppose that, for the realization of the plan of the universe, the whole region of the other inhabited stars stands in some relation of comparison, unknown to us, through the intermediary of the universal region a certain relationship springs up from both sides between the inhabitants of this earth or region and the inhabitants of other stars — in the same way as through the intermediary of the hand there exists a relation of comparison between the particular joints of the fingers and the foot, so that all be suitably adapted to the whole animal; not even then with this supposition could we find a relation of comparison between those inhabitants of the other stars, of whatever nature they be, and the natives of this world.

For since that whole region is unknown to us, its inhabitants remain wholly unknown. To go no further than this earth: animals of a given species unite to form a common home of the species and share the common characteristics of their habitat, knowing nothing of or caring nothing for strangers. Their idea of strangers, even if it reaches some kind of vocal expression, is wholly exterior and conjectural and, such as it is, conceivable only after lengthy experience. Of the inhabitants then of worlds other than our own we can know still less, having no standards by which to appraise them. It may be conjectured that in the area of the sun there exist solar beings, bright and enlightened intellectual denizens, and by nature more spiritual than such as may inhabit the moon — who are possibly lunatics — whilst those on earth are more gross and material. It may be supposed that those solar intelligences are highly actualized and little in potency, while the earth denizens are much in potency and little in act, and the moon-dwellers betwixt and between.

We make these conjectures from a consideration of the fiery nature of the sun, the water and air elements in the moon and the weighty bulk of the earth. And we may make parallel surmise of other stellar areas that none of them lack inhabitants, as being each, like the world we live in, a particular area of one universe which contains as many such areas as there are uncountable stars. In these local areas (we may guess), so countless that only He who has created all things in number can enumerate them, the whole cosmos suffers a triple contraction in its downward fourfold progress. (Translation Heron)

Again Beachcombing does not assert that this marks the beginning of humanity’s speculation about alien life, nor that it is the first learned or the first medieval mention. But it is, with descriptions of the lunatics on the moon and effete solar folk, the beginning of speculating on what that life might be like – cue ET, Star Trek, Roswell and other voyages into the human imagination (and on occasion into human madness).

If there were any earlier competing references, even from mythology, Beachcombing would, of course, love to hear about them! drbeachcomingATyahooDOTcom