In 1820, Carl Friedrich Gauss, the eminent German mathematician, proposed building a jumbo-sized geometric proof of the Pythagorean theorem in the Siberian expanse–a structure so immense that it could be sighted by intelligent beings on the Moon.  In 1840, Joseph von Littrow, suggested something similar.  Both Gauss and von Littrow saw mathematical truths as a universal language –as a sign of intelligent life on Earth…

 

The Victorian-era, in particular, witnessed a popular belief in the existence of alien life. Several proposals for interplanetary communication were made by nineteenth century scientists. While modern astrobiology is certain that other probable forms of life, if they do exist, exist on the outer planets, Victorian-era scientists believed extraterrestrial life plausible much closer to home.

In 1820, Carl Friedrich Gauss, the eminent German mathematician, proposed building a jumbo-sized geometric proof of the Pythagorean theorem in the Siberian expanse–a structure so immense that it could be sighted by intelligent beings on the Moon.  In 1840, Joseph von Littrow, suggested something similar.  Both Gauss and von Littrow saw mathematical truths as a universal language –as a sign of intelligent life on Earth, and as a recognizable signal to intelligent life elsewhere.

Eventually, though, the idea of building massive geometric shapes on Earth’s blackboard was replaced with the idea of flashing light across space using multiple mirrors. Gauss proposed a giant heliotrope entirely made out of a hundred mirrors, sixteen square feet each. This light-beaming instrument would reflect sunlight all the way to the Moon, thus enabling a sort of cosmic telegraphy.

In proposing this method, was Gauss ploughing a lonely furrow in the field of Victorian astronomy? Hardly. In fact, in 1874 and 1875, respectively, Charles Cros and Edvard Engelbert Novius suggested focusing electric lamps on Mars or Venus. Novius’s particular scheme involved a whopping 22,500 lights. Further, A. Mercier submitted that a series of reflectors on the Eiffel Tower would capture sufficient light at sunset and redirect it towards Mars. Each of these designs proposed flashing a simple code to affirm the signal’s intentionality.

However, none of these scenarios were ever actualized. The fact was that the logistics of any such operation was simply impractical and untenable. In 1909, William Pickering estimated that a system of mirrors which could traverse the distance to Mars would cost around $10 million–an expense, he felt, was unjustified  until more proof of the existence of extraterrestrial life emerged.

Nicola Tesla had or rather thought he had proof. In 1899, while Tesla was working in his laboratory, his sensors began registering baffling electric disturbances which could not be attributed to any cause known to him. Tesla grew increasingly convinced that he had intercepted, what he called, “the greeting of one planet to another.”

He would dedicate the rest of his life working on a system that could send energy across great distances, allowing Earth to answer back. Unfortunately, any information about this invention was lost after Tesla’s death. As for what the electric signals were, the question is open to speculation.

 

Surabhi Goel

Surabhi Goel

Surabhi Goel is an MPhil scholar at the Faculty of Arts, University of Delhi.

Comments

comments