Eddington 1927: Plurality of Worlds



This paper presents Chapter VIII (section 3) from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color, based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

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Plurality of Worlds

I will here put together the present astronomical evidence as tQ the habitability of other worlds. The popular idea that an answer to this question is one of the main aims of the study of celestial objects is rather disconcerting to the astronomer. Anything that he has to contribute is of the nature of fragmentary hints picked up in the course of investigations with more practicable and commonplace purposes. Nevertheless, the mind is irresistibly drawn to play with the thought that somewhere in the universe there may be other beings “a little lower than the angels” whom Man may regard as his equals—or perhaps his superiors.

It is idle to guess the forms that life might take in conditions differing from those of our planet. If I have rightly understood the view of palaeontologists, mammalian life is the third terrestrial dynasty—Nature’s third attempt to evolve an order of life sufficiently flexible to changing conditions and fitted to dominate the earth. Minor details in the balance of circumstances must greatly affect the possibility of life and the type of organism destined to prevail. Some critical branch-point in the course of evolution must be negotiated before life can rise to the level of consciousness. All this is remote from the astronomer’s line of study. To avoid endless conjecture I shall assume that the required conditions of habitability are not unlike those on the earth, and that if such conditions obtain life will automatically make its appearance.

Science still needs to fill the gap between physics and biology.

We survey first the planets of the solar system; of these only Venus and Mars seem at all eligible. Venus, so far as we know, would be well adapted for life similar to ours. It is about the same size as the earth, nearer the sun but probably not warmer, and it possesses an atmosphere of satisfactory density. Spectroscopic observation has unexpectedly failed to give any indication of oxygen in the upper atmosphere and thus suggests a doubt as to whether free oxygen exists on the planet; but at present we hesitate to draw so definite an inference. If transplanted to Venus we might perhaps continue to live without much derangement of habit— except that I personally would have to find a new profession, since Venus is not a good place for astronomers. It is completely covered with cloud or mist. For this reason no definite surface markings can be made out, and it is still uncertain how fast it rotates on its axis and in which direction the axis lies. One curious theory may be mentioned though it should perhaps not be taken too seriously. It is thought by some that the great cavity occupied by the Pacific Ocean is a scar left by the moon when it was first disrupted from the earth. Evidently this cavity fulfils an important function in draining away superfluous water, and if it were filled up practically all the continental area would be submerged. Thus indirectly the existence of dry land is bound up with the existence of the moon. But Venus has no moon, and since it seems to be similar to the earth in other respects, it may perhaps be inferred that it is a world which is all ocean—where fishes are supreme. The suggestion at any rate serves to remind us that the destinies of organic life may be determined by what are at first sight irrelevant accidents.

The sun is an ordinary star and the earth is an ordinary planet, but the moon is not an ordinary satellite. No other known satellite is anything like so large in proportion to the planet which it attends. The moon contains about 1/80 part of the mass of the earth which seems a small ratio; but it is abnormally great compared with other satellites. The next highest ratio is found in the system of Saturn whose largest satellite Titan has 1/4000 of the planet’s mass. Very special circumstances must have occurred in the history of the earth to have led to the breaking away of so unusual a fraction of the mass. The explanation proposed by Sir George Darwin, which is still regarded as most probable, is that a resonance in period occurred between the solar tides and the natural free period of vibration of the globe of the earth. The tidal deformation of the earth thus grew to large amplitude, ending in a cataclysm which separated the great lump of material that formed the moon. Other planets escaped this dangerous coincidence of period, and their satellites separated by more normal development. If ever I meet a being who has lived in another world, I shall feel very humble in most respects, but I expect to be able to boast a little about the moon.

Mars is the only planet whose solid surface can be seen and studied; and it tempts us to consider the possibility of life in more detail. Its smaller size leads to considerably different conditions; but the two essentials, air and water, are both present though scanty. The Martian atmosphere is thinner than our own but it is perhaps adequate. It has been proved to contain oxygen. There is no ocean; the surface markings represent, not sea and land, but red desert and darker ground which is perhaps moist and fertile. A conspicuous feature is the white cap covering the pole which is clearly a deposit of snow; it must be quite shallow since it melts away completely in the summer. Photographs show from time to time indubitable clouds which blot out temporarily large areas of surface detail; clear weather, however, is more usual. The air, if cloudless, is slightly hazy. W. H. Wright has shown this very convincingly by comparing photographs taken with light of different wave-lengths. Light of short wave-length is much scattered by haze and accordingly the ordinary photographs are disappointingly blurry. Much sharper surface-detail is shown when visual yellow light is employed (a yellow screen being commonly used to adapt visual telescopes for photography) ; being of longer wave-length the visual rays penetrate the haze more easily.* Still clearer detail is obtained by photographing with the long infra-red waves.

* It seems to have been a fortunate circumstance that the pioneers of Martian photography had no suitable photographic telescopes and had to adapt visual telescopes—thus employing visual (yellow) light which, as it turned out, was essential for good results.

Great attention has lately been paid to the determination of the temperature of the surface of Mars; it is possible to find this by direct measurement of the heat radiated to us from different parts of the surface. The results, though in many respects informative, are scarcely accurate and accordant enough to give a definite idea of the climatology. Naturally the temperature varies a great deal between day and night and in different latitudes; but on the average the conditions are decidedly chilly. Even at the equator the temperature falls below freezing point at sunset. If we accepted the present determinations as definitive we should have some doubt as to whether life could endure the conditions.

In one of Huxley’s Essays there occurs the passage “Until human life is longer and the duties of the present press less heavily I do not think that wise men will occupy themselves with Jovian or Martian natural history.” To-day it would seem that Martian natural history is not altogether beyond the limits of serious science. At least the surface of Mars shows a seasonal change such as we might well imagine the forest-clad earth would show to an outside onlooker. This seasonal change of appearance is very conspicuous to the attentive observer. As the spring in one hemisphere advances (I mean, of course, the Martian spring), the darker areas, which are at first few and faint, extend and deepen in contrast. The same regions darken year after year at nearly the same date in the Martian calendar. It may be that there is an inorganic explanation; the spring rains moisten the surface and change its colour. But it is perhaps unlikely that there is enough rain to bring about this change as a direct effect. It is easier to believe that we are witnessing the annual awakening of vegetation so familiar on our own planet.

The existence of oxygen in the Martian atmosphere supplies another argument in support of the existence of vegetable life. Oxygen combines freely with many elements, and the rocks in the earth’s crust are thirsty for oxygen. They would in course of time bring about its complete disappearance from the air, were it not that the vegetation extracts it from the soil and sets it free again. If oxygen in the terrestrial atmosphere is maintained in this way, it would seem reasonable to assume that vegetable life is required to play the same part on Mars. Taking this in conjunction with the evidence of the seasonal changes of appearance, a rather strong case for the existence of vegetation seems to have been made out.

If vegetable life must be admitted, can we exclude animal life? I have come to the end of the astronomical data and can take no responsibility for anything further that you may infer. It is true that the late Prof. Lowell argued that certain more or less straight markings on the planet represent an artificial irrigation system and are the signs of an advanced civilisation; but this theory has not, I think, won much support. In justice to the author of this speculation it should be said that his own work and that of his observatory have made a magnificent contribution to our knowledge of Mars; but few would follow him all the way on the more picturesque side of his conclusions.* Finally we may stress one point. Mars has every appearance of being a planet long past its prime; and it is in any case improbable that two planets differing so much as Mars and the Earth would be in the zenith of biological development contemporaneously.

*Mars is not seen under favourable conditions except from low latitudes and high altitudes. Astronomers who have not these advantages are reluctant to form a decided opinion on the many controversial points that have arisen.


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