2015-01-20 07:13:51 UTC
“Why should earth be the only planet supporting human life?” asked the
physicist in 1920.
By Tony Reichhardt
December 17, 2014
The release this month of a digital edition of Albert Einstein’s papers
had me hunting through the great man’s works for any mention of space
travel. True, Einstein died two years before the launch of Sputnik 1 in
1957, but people had been theorizing about rocket flight for decades by
then, including some, like Hermann Oberth, in the physicist’s native
Unfortunately, this first digital release only covers Einstein’s life up
until 1923, around the time Oberth started writing about spaceflight. So
not a single hit turned up for the search terms “rocket” or “space
travel.” Guess we’ll have to wait for the later volumes.
There was, however, an intriguing item from January 1920, a reference to
an article in the London Daily Mail, whose correspondent had asked the
soon-to-be Nobel laureate his opinions about extraterrestrial life.
Radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi had recently told the same paper about
mysterious signals he speculated may have come from Mars. What did
“There is every reason to believe that Mars and other planets are
inhabited,” answered the professor. “Why should the earth be the only
planet supporting human life? It is not singular in any other respect.
But if intelligent creatures do exist, as we may assume they do
elsewhere in the universe, I should not expect them to try to
communicate with the earth by wireless [radio]. Light rays, the
direction of which can be controlled much more easily, would more
probably be the first method attempted.”
Einstein’s dismissal of what we now know as radio SETI (Search for
Extraterrestrial Intelligence) may sound surprising, considering that’s
exactly the region of the spectrum where most searches have been
conducted to date. But in 1920, Einstein lacked a key bit of
information. The reason radio searches are favored for modern SETI is
that long radio waves more easily penetrate the pervasive dust in
interstellar space that blocks shorter-wavelength light from reaching
us. In 1920, astronomers didn’t yet understand the nature of
The father of relativity theory may in fact have been right. Optical
SETI searches by teams at Harvard and other places are enjoying a kind
of revival, even though they have the disadvantage of searching only for
light beams that would have to be aimed deliberately in our direction,
as opposed to radio signals that spread out like ripples in a pond.
By the way, searching for the word “Mars” in Einstein’s digital papers
also turned up this perhaps uncharacteristically misanthropic line from
a letter sent in February 1917: “It is a pity that we do not live on
Mars and just observe man’s nasty antics by telescope.”
Brings home the argument I've had with some dope from tumblrweed that
current science knowledge cannot be wholly relied upon.
There are things about our reality we may not know at this point like
Einstein didn't know decades ago.
Is or was Mars inhabited? Well, it was a damned popular notion in the
late 19th and early 20th centuries, as evidenced by Einstein's nod to
the possibility. The notion continued to gather force and by the 1950s,
it had still not been generally discounted. A famous respected
astronomer, Percival Lowell, in the early 1900s, advanced the notion
with what appeared to be observations of canals on the surface. Later,
it was found these lines were optical illusions. When the Mariner crafts
arrived in the early-mid 60s, no sign of canals were noted in photos. I
was deflated as a young teen by the photos, thinking that popular
cultural beliefs might be verified by science. Naivete in youth is
It is still possible, however, that Mars may have been inhabited. Maybe
not by intelligent beings, however. Lower forms of life maybe. Still, it
would be thrilling to find any kind of life had or is existing there. I
would think only an extensive series of human expeditions covering
significant land areas would be needed to answer that question.