Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Cambridge Book Club features Alien Life Imagined

Mark Brake

Download the full excerpt of Alien Life Imagined here.

Kosmos: aliens in ancient Greece

“On our way we passed many countries and put in at the Morning Star, which was just being colonised. We landed there and procured water. Going aboard and making for the Zodiac, we passed the Sun to port, hugging the shore. We did not land, though many of my comrades wanted to; for the wind was unfavourable. But we saw that the country was green and fertile and well-watered, and full of untold good things.

Sailing the next night and day we reached Lamp-town toward evening, already being on our downward way. This city lies in the air midway between the Pleiades and the Hyades, though much lower than the Zodiac. On landing, we did not find any men at all, but a lot of lamps running about and loitering in the public square and at the harbour. Some of them were small and poor, so to speak: a few, being great and powerful, were very splendid and conspicuous. Each of them has his own house, or sconce, they have names like men, and we heard them talking. They offered us no harm, but invited us to be their guests. We were afraid, however, and none of us ventured to eat a mouthful or close an eye. They have a public building in the centre of the city, where their magistrate sits all night and calls each of them by name, and whoever does not answer is sentenced to death for deserting. They are executed by being put out. We were at court, saw what went on, and heard the lamps defend themselves and tell why they came late. There I recognised our own lamp: I spoke to him and enquired how things were at home, and he told me all about them.”

Lucian, A True Story, trans. A. M. Harmon, parallel English and Greek

The war of the worldviews

Astrobiology has some backstory.

The tale of our changing view of the possibility of life beyond the Earth is one that begins in ancient times, during the grandeur that was the ancient Greek world. In fact, the intellectual and cultural brilliance of the Greeks will have a profound effect on the rest of our narrative. But exactly what historical root does the plurality of worlds debate have in antiquity? What precursors in philosophy and literature, what flights of imaginative phantasy in fact and fiction? And what bearing did these ideas have on the science and culture of ‘astrobiology’ that was to develop over the coming millennia? Such are the questions that this first chapter seeks to address.

We shall discover the way in which philosophies of the classical world influenced succeeding ages, especially in relation to the natural sciences of astronomy and biology. The worldviews that shape our narrative are not dreamt up, out of thin air. So we shall be careful to trace the relevant movements in philosophy, culture, economy, and society for our story. For we need to know what prevailing conditions of culture and economy, of people and politics, led to such a remarkable history. Moreover, as it is the classical Greek world we have to thank for the conscious and unbroken thread of rational thinking, why then? Why in ancient Greece does such a reasoned philosophy develop, one so truly modern that its implications for life in the universe seem so contemporary?

The modern study of astrobiology makes use of many disciplines. As its main mission is to try explaining the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe, its history often brings other fields into sharp focus. A history of astrobiology – naturally we have not always referred to the subject as such – must study advances in philosophy, physics, astronomy, cosmology, biology, and geology, among others, as rational speculation on extraterrestrial life has mostly concerned itself with hypotheses that fit firmly into existing scientific paradigms. So, the work of philosophers and scientists, especially astronomers, deserves special attention in this history, as their ideas about extraterrestrials have often had a strong influence on others.

The other primary goal of this book is to outline a history of fictional ideas about intelligent extraterrestrial life. As eminent writers are also intellectuals in the human family, their creative morphing of scientific ideas into symbols of the human condition is often an unconscious and therefore particularly valuable reflection of the assumptions and attitudes held by society. By virtue of its ability to project and dramatise, science fiction has been a particularly effective, and perhaps for many readers the only, means for generating concern and thought about the social, philosophical and moral consequences of scientific progress.

Learning how poets react to extraterrestrial life, in other words, can teach us much about humanity.

Finally, there is the war of the worldviews. We shall discover that, throughout the ages, an evolving battle has played out between conflicting philosophies. At times of scientific revolution, this conflict peaks with great drama, such as the clash between Galileo and the Inquisition, and the controversy between Darwin and the creationists. But the schism is ancient in origin. Even in the ancient Greek world we find thought diverged into two paths, one materialist, one idealist.

And so to the ancient world, where we meet the first materialists in the Atomists, and the first idealists in Plato and Aristotle. With the Atomists we shall find a body of work that divines the shape of things to come: a worldview that embraced evolution, an atomic world of matter in motion, with no God. And with idealist thinkers Plato and Aristotle we encounter a philosophy of reaction, one developed out of the chronic fear of change when the strong slave-owning city-state of Athens was brought under the iron fist of Sparta.

Download the full excerpt of Alien Life Imagined here.

About The Author

Mark Brake

Mark Brake is the author of Alien Life Imagined: Communicating the Science and Culture of Astrobiology (2012). Brake is a freelance academic and is well known for his work in commu...

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