Today, life on the moon. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
As I sit down to type, I
first have to turn off my SETI screensaver. My PC
computes fast Fourier transforms in the background
while I work -- analyzing radio signals from space.
Many people sign up to do that. I don't really
expect to find an alien message saying,
"Take me to your leader," but the screen-saver is fun.
The larger question, "Is there life out there?" has
been around for a long time. It began demanding our
attention after Galileo turned his new telescope on the moon in 1609.
Up to then, the moon had been a celestial
crystalline sphere. Now it became
craggy, pitted and imperfect -- like earth
itself. If the moon and the planets were like
earth, then mightn't they, too, support sentient
Five years after Galileo's telescope had sent shock
waves through seventeenth-century astronomy, John
Wilkins was born in England. By the age of twenty,
he'd finished a master's degree at Oxford. When he
was twenty-four, he published a book with the
The Discovery of a World in the Moone: Or A
Discourse Tending To Prove that 'tis probable there
may be another habitable World in that Planet.
This was the first such study of the new secular
moon. In it, Wilkins argues thirteen propositions
-- some accurate, some not.
Contrary to the Church's thinking, he argues that
the moon is solid and opaque. Like earth, it's made
of base and corruptible matter. It has no light of
its own. It only reflects the sun. It has mountains
and valleys, and it suffers meteor impacts. This
was six years before the death of Galileo, and he's
confident that earth orbits the sun just as the
moon orbits earth. It's long before Newton, yet he
accurately describes how
orbiting bodies stay aloft.
Wilkins says the moon has an Atmo-Sphere
because that's what creates the fuzzy edge of the
shadow cast on Earth during a solar eclipse. He
blew that one. He didn't realize he was looking at
the same penumbra we see in the shadow cast by a
By now Wilkins had taken Holy Orders, and, when he
speaks of life on the moon, his arguments shift
from physical to theological. He worries about how
Adam might've sired its inhabitants and whence
their salvation might come.
Wilkins's book was popular. A translation appeared
in France, and Cyrano de Bergerac read it. Cyrano's last novel, published
after his death, was a wildly fanciful
science-fiction tale of traveling to that earthlike
moon. The Dutch/English scientist Christiaan
Huygens was fifteen years younger than Wilkins and
undoubtedly knew him. In 1698, Huygens wrote his own book
promoting the likelihood of intelligent life on
So the seed was sown long before NASA. Sure, they
got a few things wrong, but Wilkins's eleventh
proposition was prophetic:
... as their world is our Moone, So our world is
And we remember that mystical NASA photo of earth,
rising like a great companion planet, over the rim
of the moon -- while living beings were there to
watch it, after all.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Wilkins, J., The Discovery of a World in the
Moone. Or, A Discorse Tending To Prove that 'tis
probable there may be another habitable World in the
Planet. London, Printed by E.G. for Michael Sparl
and Edward Forrest, 1638. (Actually, Wilkins's name
did not appear on the first edition's title page. My
source was a facsimile edition published by Da Capo
Press, Inc., in 1972.) My thanks to Pat Bozeman, UH
Library, for calling my attention to the Wilkins
Should you, too, wish to run SETI calculations on
your home PC, check the website, http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/
I am grateful to Carol Lienhard and Governor
William P. Hobby (who have both run these programs
for some time) for urging me to join them.
For lack of space, I've omitted much of Wilkins's
distinguished life. He was for example Christopher Wren's teacher. He was
a friend to the distinguished cosmologist Thomas Burnett. And he was the
primary founding father of the Royal Society.
Wilkins's thirteen propositions in his book about
the moon are worth recounting here. They are:
1) That the strangenesse of this opinion is no
sufficient reason why it should be rejected,
because other certaine truths have beene formerly
esteemed ridiculous, and great absurdities
entertained by common consent.
2) That a plurality of worlds doth not
contradict any principle of reason or faith.
3) That the heavens doe not consist of any such
pure matter which can priviledge them from the like
change and corruption, as these inferiour bodies
are liable unto.
4) That the Moone is a solid, compacted, opacous
5) That the Moone hath not any light of her
6) That there is a world in the Moone, hath
beene the direct opinion of many ancient, with some
moderne Mathematicians, and may probably be deduced
from the tenents of others.
7) That those spots and brighter parts which by
our sight may be distinguished in the Moone, doe
shew the difference betwixt the Sea and Land in the
8) That the spots represent the Sea, and the
brighter parts the Land.
9) That there are high Mountaines, deepe
vallies, and spacious plaines in the body of the
10) That there is an Atmo-Sphere, or an orbe of
grosse vaporous aire, immediately encompassing the
body of the Moone.
11) That as their world is our Moone, so our
world is their moone.
12) That tis probable there may bee such meteors
belonging to that world in the Moone, as there are
13) That tis probable there may be inhabitants
in this other World, but of what kind they are is
Click on the thumbnail above to
see a full-size image
The frontispiece and title page of Wilkins's book.
heliocentric representation of the solar system on
Wilkins's explantion of orbital trajectories
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.