Analogies of Nature

Legends of Astrobiology: Newcomb

In 1906, the world had known powered human flight for a short three years.

The most famous astronomer, if not most famous scientist, was a man who was self-educated: Simon Newcomb. Born in Nova Scotia, he spent a large part of his adult life observing stars from the Naval Observatory, in Washington, D.C. Since 1877, he had been director of the American Nautical Almanac Office. His relatively peaceful life gave him great scientific freedom. He began a body of observational astronomy that even today, underpins a large class of universal constants and stellar tables. His goal was to make astronomy a more exact science, to clean out incomplete descriptions of celestial motion, and replace speculation with universality and precision.

His remarkable essays, many of which were written for popular magazines like Harper’s and the North American Review, featured the unsolved problems–a contrast with the textbook style of only detailing the solved ones. He formulated his thoughts on "Life in the Universe", and published the collection in June 1906. Excerpts of his reflections are included here, in the "Legends of Astrobiology"–a multi-part historical series of insightful opinion from those who helped shape modern thought on our place in the universe. Echoing over the span of nearly a century, many of Newcomb’s observations remain as penetrating today, just as one might expect from a self-educated man who had shaped an entire generation of mathematical astronomers.

So far as we can judge from what we see on our globe, the production of life is one of the greatest and most incessant purposes of nature. Life is absent only in regions of perpetual frost, where it never has an opportunity to begin; in places where the temperature is near the boiling-point, which is found to be destructive to it; and beneath the earth’s surface, where none of the changes essential to it can come about. Within the limits imposed by these prohibitory conditions–that is to say, within the range of temperature at which water retains its liquid state, and in regions where the sun’s rays can penetrate and where wind can blow and water exist in a liquid form–life is the universal rule. How prodigal nature seems to be in its production is too trite a fact to be dwelt upon. We have all read of the millions of germs which are destroyed for every one that comes to maturity. Even the higher forms of life are found almost everywhere. Only small islands have ever been discovered which were uninhabited, and animals of a higher grade are as widely diffused as man.

Precise Surroundings

If it would be going too far to claim that all conditions may have forms of life appropriate to them, it would be going as much too far in the other direction to claim that life can exist only with the precise surroundings which nurture it on this planet. It is very remarkable in this connection that while in one direction we see life coming to an end, in the other direction we see it flourishing more and more up to the limit. These two directions are those of heat and cold. We cannot suppose that life would develop in any important degree in a region of perpetual frost, such as the polar regions of our globe. But we do not find any end to it as the climate becomes warmer. On the contrary, every one knows that the tropics are the most fertile regions of the globe in its production. The luxuriance of the vegetation and the number of the animals continually increase the more tropical the climate becomes. Where the limit may be set no one can say. But it would doubtless be far above the present temperature of the equatorial regions.

The Terestrial Planet Finder will search for Earth-like planets orbiting 250 of the closest stars.
Credit: NASA

We all know that this earth on which we dwell is only one of countless millions of globes scattered through the wilds of infinite space. So far as we know, most of these globes are wholly unlike the earth, being at a temperature so high that, like our sun, they shine by their own light. In such worlds we may regard it as quite certain that no organized life could exist. But evidence is continually increasing that dark and opaque worlds like ours exist and revolve around their suns, as the earth on which we dwell revolves around its central luminary. Although the number of such globes yet discovered is not great, the circumstances under which they are found lead us to believe that the actual number may be as great as that of the visible stars which stud the sky. If so, the probabilities are that millions of them are essentially similar to our own globe. Have we any reason to believe that life exists on these other worlds?

The reader will not expect me to answer this question positively. It must be admitted that, scientifically, we have no light upon the question, and therefore no positive grounds for reaching a conclusion. We can only reason by analogy and by what we know of the origin and conditions of life around us, and assume that the same agencies which are at play here would be found at play under similar conditions in other parts of the universe.

The First Germ

A generation ago the origin of life upon our planet was one of the great mysteries of science. All the facts brought out by investigation into the past history of our earth seemed to show, with hardly the possibility of a doubt, that there was a time when it was a fiery mass, no more capable of serving as the abode of a living being than the interior of a Bessemer steel furnace. There must therefore have been, within a certain period, a beginning of life upon its surface. But, so far as investigation had gone– indeed, so far as it has gone to the present time–no life has been found to originate of itself. The living germ seems to be necessary to the beginning of any living form. Whence, then, came the first germ?

Fragments of Comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9 colliding with Jupiter (July 16-24, 1994).
Credit: NASA

Many of our readers may remember a suggestion by Sir William Thomson, now Lord Kelvin, made twenty or thirty years ago, that life may have been brought to our planet by the falling of a meteor from space. This does not, however, solve the difficulty–indeed, it would only make it greater. It still leaves open the question how life began on the meteor; and granting this, why it was not destroyed by the heat generated as the meteor passed through the air. The popular view that life began through a special act of creative power seemed to be almost forced upon man by the failure of science to discover any other beginning for it. It cannot be said that even to-day anything definite has been actually discovered to refute this view. All we can say about it is that it does not run in with the general views of modern science as to the beginning of things, and that those who refuse to accept it must hold that, under certain conditions which prevail, life begins by a very gradual process, similar to that by which forms suggesting growth seem to originate even under conditions so unfavorable as those existing in a bottle of acid.

Water (Dihydrogen Oxide, H2O) is a truly remarkable chemical compound and is fundamental to life on Earth.
Credit: NASA


Ask the Spectroscope

But it is not at all necessary for our purpose to decide this question. If life existed through a creative act, it is absurd to suppose that that act was confined to one of the countless millions of worlds scattered through space. If it began at a certain stage of evolution by a natural process, the question will arise, what conditions are favorable to the commencement of this process? Here we are quite justified in reasoning from what, granting this process, has taken place upon our globe during its past history. One of the most elementary principles accepted by the human mind is that like causes produce like effects. The special conditions under which we find life to develop around us may be comprehensively summed up as the existence of water in the liquid form, and the presence of nitrogen, free perhaps in the first place, but accompanied by substances with which it may form combinations. Oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen are, then, the fundamental requirements. The addition of calcium or other forms of matter necessary to the existence of a solid world goes without saying. The question now is whether these necessary conditions exist in other parts of the universe.

The spectroscope shows that, so far as the chemical elements go, other worlds are composed of the same elements as ours. Hydrogen especially exists everywhere, and we have reason to believe that the same is true of oxygen and nitrogen. Calcium, the base of lime, is almost universal. So far as chemical elements go, we may therefore take it for granted that the conditions under which life begins are very widely diffused in the universe. It is, therefore, contrary to all the analogies of nature to suppose that life began only on a single world.

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