17th Century Scientist Gives First Description of Alien Life: Hear Passages from Christiaan Huygens’ Cosmotheoros (1698)

Astro­bi­ol­o­gists can now extrap­o­late the evo­lu­tion­ary char­ac­ter­is­tics of pos­si­ble alien life, should it exist, giv­en the wealth of data avail­able on inter­plan­e­tary con­di­tions. But our ideas about aliens have drawn not from sci­ence but from what Adri­an Hor­ton at The Guardian calls “an engross­ing feed­back loop” of Hol­ly­wood films, comics books, and sci-fi nov­els. A lit­tle over three-hun­dred years ago — hav­ing nev­er heard of H.G. Wells or the X‑Files — Dutch sci­en­tist Chris­ti­aan Huy­gens answered the ques­tion of what alien life might look like in his work Cos­moth­e­o­ros, pub­lished after his death in 1698.

Every­one knows the names Galileo and Isaac New­ton, and near­ly every­one knows their major accom­plish­ments, but we find much less famil­iar­i­ty with Huy­gens, even though his achieve­ments “make him the great­est sci­en­tist in the peri­od between Galileo and New­ton,” notes the Pub­lic Domain Review.

Those achieve­ments include the dis­cov­ery of Saturn’s rings and its moon, Titan, the inven­tion of the first refract­ing tele­scope, a detailed map­ping of the Ori­on Neb­u­la, and some high­ly notable advance­ments in math­e­mat­ics. (Maybe we — Eng­lish speak­ers, that is — find his last name hard to pro­nounce?)

Huy­gens was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary thinker. After Coper­ni­cus, it became clear to him that “our plan­et is just one of many,” as schol­ar Hugo A. van den Berg writes, “and not set apart by any spe­cial con­sid­er­a­tion oth­er than the acci­den­tal fact that we hap­pen to be its inhab­i­tants.” Using the pow­ers of obser­va­tion avail­able to him, he the­o­rized that the inhab­i­tants of Jupiter and Sat­urn (he used the term “Plan­e­tar­i­ans”) must pos­sess “the Art of Nav­i­ga­tion,” espe­cial­ly “in hav­ing so many Moons to direct their Course…. And what a troop of oth­er things fol­low from this allowance? If they have Ships, they must have Sails and Anchors, Ropes, Pil­lies, and Rud­ders…”

“We may well laugh at Huy­gens,” van den Berg writes, “But sure­ly in our own cen­tu­ry, we are equal­ly parochial in our own way. We invari­ably fail to imag­ine what we fail to imag­ine.” Our ideas of aliens fly­ing space­craft already seem quaint giv­en mul­ti­ver­sal and inter­di­men­sion­al modes of trav­el in sci­ence fic­tion. Huy­gens had no cul­tur­al “feed­back loop.” He was mak­ing it up as he went. “In con­trast to Huy­gens’ astro­nom­i­cal works, Cos­moth­e­o­ros is almost entire­ly spec­u­la­tive,” notes van den Berg — though his spec­u­la­tions are through­out informed and guid­ed by sci­en­tif­ic rea­son­ing.

To under­mine the idea of Earth as spe­cial, cen­tral, and unique, “a thing that no Rea­son will per­mit,” Huy­gens wrote — meant pos­ing a poten­tial threat to “those whose Igno­rance or Zeal is too great.” There­fore, he willed his broth­er to pub­lish Cos­moth­e­o­ros after his death so that he might avoid the fate of Galileo. Already out of favor with Louis XIV, whom Huy­gens had served as a gov­ern­ment sci­en­tist, he wrote the book while back at home in The Hague, “fre­quent­ly ill with depres­sions and fevers,” writes the Pub­lic Domain Review. What did Huy­gens see in his cos­mic imag­i­na­tion of the sail­ing inhab­i­tants of Jupiter and Sat­urn? Hear for your­self above in a read­ing of Huy­gens’ Cos­moth­e­o­ros from Voic­es of the Past.

Huy­gens’ descrip­tions of intel­li­gent alien life derive from his lim­it­ed obser­va­tions about human and ani­mal life, and so he pro­pos­es the neces­si­ty of human-like hands and oth­er appendages, and rules out such things as an “elephant’s pro­boscis.” (He is par­tic­u­lar­ly fix­at­ed on hands, though some alien humanoids might also devel­op wings, he the­o­rizes.) Like all alien sto­ries to come, Huy­gens’ spec­u­la­tions, how­ev­er log­i­cal­ly he presents them, say “more about our­selves,” as Hor­ton writes, “our fears, our anx­i­eties, our hope, our adapt­abil­i­ty — than any poten­tial out­side vis­i­tor.” His descrip­tions show that while he did not need to place Earth at the cen­ter of the cos­mos, he mea­sured the cos­mos accord­ing to a very human scale.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Do Aliens Look Like? Oxford Astro­bi­ol­o­gists Draw a Pic­ture, Based on Dar­win­ian The­o­ries of Evo­lu­tion

Carl Sagan Sent Music & Pho­tos Into Space So That Aliens Could Under­stand Human Civ­i­liza­tion (Even After We’re Gone)

Richard Feyn­man: The Like­li­hood of Fly­ing Saucers

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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