Life, But Not As We Know It

by Andrew Crumey

Broadcast on Radio 3, "The Essay", July 2007


Over eight hundred years ago in the village of Woolpit in Suffolk, something very strange happened. Here’s the story as told by the chronicler William of Newburgh in 1198.

“During harvest, while the reapers were employed in gathering in the produce of the fields, two children, a boy and a girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations. While wandering through the fields in astonishment, they were seized by the reapers, and conducted to the village, and many persons coming to see so novel a sight, they were kept some days…”

The green children of Woolpit were a sensation, and even today they play their part in the local tourist industry: the village sign shows the pair in silhouette, holding hands, looking to my eye rather more 1970s than twelfth century. But who – or what – were they? Might they have been visitors from another world?

William of Newburgh - or Nubrigensis, to give him his Latinised name - was one of the most important historians of the period, and he offers a vivid account of the green children in his History Of English Affairs. They were emaciated when they were found, and couldn’t be made to eat anything except raw green beans. They spoke to each other in an unintelligible language, but eventually learned enough English to explain that they came from a place without sunlight where one day they heard a strange noise, fell into a trance, and woke up in the fields where they were found. The boy died but the girl lost her green colour, grew up and married a fellow from King’s Lynn.

There’s probably a rational explanation for those children, there always is. Still, to me there’s something distinctly extraterrestrial about that sunless place they came from. Mars, by any chance?

Alright, I grew up on Doctor Who and Star Trek, and little green people have to be visitors from another planet. It’s such a familiar image, so ingrained in our consciousness. When the astronomer Jocelyn Bell picked up strangely regular pulses from space in 1967 she wrote LGM, little green men, on the radio telescope print-out, because that’s what she initially thought must be sending the signal. In fact it was a new type of star, a pulsar, and it made Bell famous. She got a damehood in this year’s birthday honours list. But long before the space age, people were already wondering if the Woolpit foundlings were alien visitors.

“If the earth move, it is a planet, and shines to them in the moon, and to the other planetary inhabitants, as the moon and they do to us upon the earth… and it may be those two green children which Nubrigensis speaks of in his time, that fell from heaven, came from thence.”

That was Robert Burton, writing in 1621 in The Anatomy Of Melancholy, wandering far from his main topic of curing depression in order to give what’s probably the earliest printed suggestion of little green men. Burton certainly wasn’t the first to argue there may be people on other planets: Giordano Bruno had been burned at the stake for suggesting it in 1600. But within a couple of decades, heresy had become science: telescopes had been invented, and people could see with their own eyes that Mars, Jupiter or Saturn are worlds, not stars. So, they assumed, there must be people living on them – and we ought to be able to communicate with them.

The idea set people’s minds alight, and one writer of the mid-1600s whose brain became particularly overheated was Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. Opinion’s divided on Margaret: many regard her as a pioneering feminist, others suspect she may have been barking mad, but she certainly made an important contribution to science fiction with her story The Blazing World, written in 1666.

It tells of a sea voyage to the North Pole, which turns out to be connected to another planet – don’t ask me how, the physics is pretty vague at this point. When the intrepid lady explorer arrives in the new world she finds not only green men, but a whole rainbow’s worth:

“They were of several complexions: not white, black, tawny, olive, or ash-coloured, but some appeared of an azure, some of a deep purple, some of a grass green, some of a scarlet, some of an orange colour.”

Communicating with these psychedelic extraterrestrials is pretty straightforward: the heroine stays on the Blazing World long enough to pick up the language, then she’s presented to the Emperor who promptly marries her. Going to another planet is like visiting another country; speaking alien is no harder than learning Chinese.

Life on other planets remained a hot topic throughout the sixteen hundreds, and in publishing terms the blockbuster was a book from France, Bernard de Fontenelle’s “Conversations On The Plurality Of Worlds”, where he explained physics and astronomy by means of imaginary chats with a fictional marchioness. It was the 1680s equivalent of A Brief History Of Time, though rather more reader-friendly, and it spawned a long series of imitations in which brainy ideas would be unpacked for the benefit of a female listener representing all those men in the reading public afraid to admit they hadn’t a clue what was going on. One of the first English translations to appear was, appropriately enough, by a woman writer, Aphra Benn.

“When someone tells you that the Moon is inhabited, you at once imagine persons made like yourself, but then, if you be somewhat theological, you become troubled. For the family of Adam could not have reached up to the Moon, nor founded colonies there. The men who dwell in the Moon are not the sons of Adam.”

This was heady stuff – as controversial as Stephen Hawking’s bit about understanding the mind of God – but Fontenelle still took it for granted that these extraterrestrial non-sons of Adam would be pretty much like us. A funny colour perhaps; possibly with wings or bug eyes or some other animally bit stuck on, like the worm-men and fox-men of Cavendish’s Blazing World, but with minds like ours, and languages anyone could get the hang of.

In other words, it was the Star Trek fantasy world I grew up with, already alive and kicking nearly four hundred years ago. So little has changed, and the reason is that we have no more hard evidence for extraterrestrial life now than they did in ancient Greece.

Our belief in “higher life-forms” out there is very old: just read Dante. Paradiso is an upwards journey through the circles of the planets, and at each stage the poet meets angels who are less and less like humans, more and more like God. The idea was put on a sort-of scientific footing by the philosopher Immanuel Kant in the mid 1700s. In a book called Theory Of Heaven, Kant explained that our Solar System started out as a whirling cloud of dust and gas that clumped together due to gravity – a process astronomers today call accretion. Life, Kant said, would evolve naturally on each planet – though of course he didn’t know how. But he claimed that as you move away from heavy centres of matter like the Sun, you encounter life-forms that are progressively more ethereal, more spiritual, while those nearer the Sun are denser and more sluggish.

“If the idea of the most sublime classes of reasoning creatures living on Jupiter or Saturn makes human beings jealous and discourages them with the knowledge of their own humble position, a glance at the lower stages brings content and calms them again. The beings on the planets Venus and Mercury are far below the perfection of human nature. What a wonderful view.”

The golden-haired, silver-suited space angels of countless science fiction movies are the modern-day incarnation of this ancient idea. Those are the people we really want to talk to, the ones with superior technology, greater wisdom, the answer to the meaning of life – but how?

Galileo offered an answer. The book of nature, he said, is written in the language of mathematics. What better way to talk to aliens than in a language most humans claim not to understand.

The nineteenth century mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss proposed a practical way of sending a message to our alien friends. Cut down huge tracts of Siberian forest, he said, to make a right-angled triangle visible from space. If we could show the people of Jupiter that we’d figured out Pythagoras’s theorem then maybe they’d want to come and visit us. Though I have to say, my own experience as a maths geek is that theorems aren’t a great way of attracting interesting life-forms.

Thankfully, the invention of radio saved Siberia’s trees, and in 1891 a prize of 100,000 French francs was promised to the first person who could establish two-way communication with extraterrestrials before the start of the twentieth century.

Mars was seen as the best bet, and a wealthy American named Percival Lowell set up his own observatory in Arizona so as to study the planet closely. Lowell had read reports of long thin lines that could sometimes be glimpsed on Mars’s surface, and sure enough, when he looked carefully, he could see them too. They were canals, Lowell decided, built on a global scale by a superior civilisation.

He claimed to have found them on Venus too but it was later found that unknowingly he had turned his telescope into an ophthalmoscope – the thin canal like structures were in fact the blood vessels in his own eye.

The canals on Mars were a different kind of illusion, but an illusion is what they were. That didn’t stop Lowell and others from making detailed maps of them, and by the late 1890s Mars mania was a worldwide phenomenon, its most famous manifestation being H. G. Wells’s War Of The Worlds.

“Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere.”

How do you communicate with a thing like that? Pretty obvious, really – you walk up to it waving a white flag. And get instantly zapped. A far better way would be to use telepathy, which is what the spiritualist Catherine Muller claimed to do. Her conversations with aliens were described by Theodore Flournoy in his 1899 book From India To The Planet Mars. The Martian language, Flournoy pointed out, had a grammar suspiciously similar to Muller’s native French.

As the decades rolled on, it seemed more and more likely that we’d need to go beyond the solar system to find aliens. In 1972 NASA launched Pioneer 10, an unmanned probe that flew past Jupiter and is out of our solar system on its way to the star Aldeberan, which it will reach in, oh, about two million years. Just in case anyone ever finds it, the spacecraft has a plaque on board with a picture of a naked man and woman and a lot of funny symbols that are meant to explain where the thing has come from. At the top there’s something that looks to me like Groucho Marx’s glasses but apparently represents the hyperfine transition of neutral hydrogen. Or maybe both. The plaque was designed by cosmologist Carl Sagan, who clearly had more in common with Carl Friedrich Gauss than first names, because when faced with the problem of communicating with aliens, what both men came up with was a puzzle understandable only by someone with a fiendishly mathematical mind. Someone, in other words, just like themselves.

Two years after Pioneer was launched, Sagan and astronomer Frank Drake designed a radio message to be beamed into space as part of their Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence; SETI for short. The message decodes into a map of the solar system, an explanation of DNA, and a stick figure representing a human, all looking very much like a 1970s arcade game of the PacMan variety.

The SETI institute is still active, but after nearly fifty years of searching, not a single alien radio signal has been detected. Instead Sagan imagined it, in his novel Contact, made into a film with Jodie Foster. The message the aliens send us is a mathematical one, of course, but the novel adds a further twist when a naturally occurring message is found in the decimal digits of pi: a Cabbalistic calling card from the highest extraterrestrial intelligence of all, the creator of the universe.

Yet maybe we need to look closer to home after all. Perhaps aliens are hiding among us, undetectable save for a little xeno-eccentricity now and again.. remember those two lost children in Suffolk? One of them grew up, married and had children in King’s Lynn? I know what you’re thinking but let’s not go there … Let’s leave it to the imagination. As writers have always known, fiction is so much more fun than fact.


©Andrew Crumey