The fascinating logic of Cosmic Pluralism

Weird ideas can flourish if enough people share a false preconception, and here’s a marvelous article on the history and philosophy of widely held certainty that other planets were inhabited by people. Not just any people, either: good Christian people.

By the 1700s, there could no longer be any doubt. Earth was just one of many worlds orbiting the Sun, which forced scientists and theologians alike to ponder a tricky question. Would God really have bothered to create empty worlds?

To many thinkers, the answer was an emphatic “no,” and so cosmic pluralism – the idea that every world is inhabited, often including the Sun – was born. And this was no fringe theory. Many of the preeminent astronomers of the 18th and 19th century, including Uranus discoverer Sir William Herschel, believed in it wholeheartedly, as did other legendary thinkers like John Locke and Benjamin Franklin. How could so many geniuses believe in something so silly?

It’s a good read. The key idea that was leading everyone to this patently false conclusion was teleology, the notion that everything in the universe had a purpose, coupled to another belief, that that purpose had to be us.

Lest you think this is just ancient history and that we’ve moved beyond it, here’s a story about a contemporary crank with peculiar ideas about alien life.

Speaking at an international forum dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life, Finkelstein said 10 percent of the known planets circling suns in the galaxy resemble Earth.

If water can be found there, then so can life, he said, adding that aliens would most likely resemble humans with two arms, two legs and a head.

“They may have different color skin, but even we have that,” he said.

Andrei Finkelstein runs a program that resembles SETI — and if I wanted to start a real argument here I’d tell you that SETI is about as quaintly absurd as Herschel’s belief that people lived on the moon. So I won’t tell you that. Yet.


  1. frankenstein monster says

    Frankie, here is an example of your innumeracy:

    No. It is an example of your utter ignorance of the physics of atmospheric reentry.

    The energy has to go somewhere.

    The energy has plenty of places to go. There is no need for it to be absorbed all by the deccelerating object.
    The superheated air around the object can radiate energy away, it can carry it away by simply leaving on the backside of the object.
    In fact, when done correctly only a minimum of the dissipated energy will be transferred to the craft/object.

    Ever seen those ceramic tiles? They’re amazing. They’re light as hell…porous, precisely so they can evaporate as the shuttle comes in.

    Utterly false. The shuttle was designed to be reusable, so it uses no ablative cooling at all.
    All its ceamic tiling is just thermal insulation.

    And in our case, since the iron blocks won’t ever fly back to space,a simple ablative shield will provide enough protection, because, as opposed to the space shuttle, a solid block of iron has no problems withstanding extreme decelerations.

    For Martian probes, aerobraking is an extremely tough maneuver,

    First, aerobraking is a different process from atmospheric entry.
    Second, mars has extremely thin atmosphere which density and height varies far more than earth’s atmosphere. That makes braking harder, obviously.

    Frankie, I can’t say whether you are innumerate, because you refuse to do even the simplest math.

    What math you are talking about ? your post didn’t contain any math at all ( just show me one formula, equation, or mathematical operation in your post ). So who is refusing to do even the basic maths ?

    Do you know how many inches (yes, inches!) of metal you’d need to cut down their flux by even a factor of two?

    Seriously. Are you so stupid that you think that you can threat all people around you like morons
    all while you both have no clue what you are babbling about, and are completely ignorant about the fact that your adversary, as opposed to you, indeed does understand what he is talking about.

    Seriously. what brain lesion makes you even think that I don’t know what cosmic rays. are ?

    Why do you think that you are the only one who knows how much shielding is needed.

    Especially, when you ( either on purpose or out of ignorance ) fail to mention that active shielding with only 10 KW power consumption can provide adequate protection.

    And you are also completely omitting the fact, that we are talking about mining asteroids, and a hollowed out asteroid provides kilometers thick shielding.

    To sum up.

    You are just another sad case of the Dunning-Kruger effect. You are so ignorant about the things you are talking about, that don’t even know that you are ignorant, and the other guy is not.