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The Scientist Who Thought 22 Trillion Aliens Live in Our Solar System

In 1837, the Scottish scientist Thomas Dick had a big idea. A really, really big idea: Build “a huge triangle or ellipsis of many miles in extent, in Siberia or any other country.” He figured that because there are some 22 trillion aliens living in our solar system, 4.2 billion of which are on the moon, even if they don’t have telescope technology to spy the triangle, surely some would have eyes powerful enough to see it unaided. Perhaps realizing just what a big idea this was, he added, “Schemes far more foolish and preposterous than the above have been contrived and acted upon in every age of the world.” Here’s what Dick figured. At the time, there were an average of 280 people per square mile in England. And because he thought every surface of our universe bears life, it would naturally occur at roughly the same population density. So from comets and asteroids to the rings of Saturn, if you knew how big something was, you could guess how many beings live there. Thus, Jupiter would be the most populated object in the solar system, with 7 trillion beings. The least populated would be Vesta, the second largest asteroid in the asteroid belt, tallying just 64 million. Dick, you see, was a very religious man, but also a voracious scientist, one of the last of the so-called natural theologists, who looked for signs of God’s influence in nature. For Dick, it simply did not make sense for God to have created the cosmos just to have it sit around unoccupied. There must be creatures out there capable of enjoying its beauty, because God wants all his work appreciated. In his book Celestial Scenery, which when it isn’t rambling is actually quite interesting, Dick writes: “This is a conclusion which is not merely probable, but absolutely certain, for the opposite opinion would rob the Deity of the most distinguishing attribute of his nature, by virtually denying him the perfection of infinite wisdom and intelligence.” If you think waterfalls and sunsets here on Earth are neato, Dick promises you’ll be floored by what you’d see on other planets. “What should we think of a globe appearing in our nocturnal sky 1,300 times larger than the apparent size of the moon, and every hour assuming a different aspect?” he asked. “What should we think of a globe filling the twentieth part of the sky, and surrounded with immense rings, in rapid motion, diffusing a radiance over the whole heavens?” It’s a lovely image, isn’t it? These are also scenes we see realized in modern sci-fi—from a brain that was ticking fully two centuries ago. More via WIRED.

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