Inference and Red Corn

Legends of Astrobiology: Newcomb

In 1906, the world had known powered 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. This relatively peaceful life gave him great scientific freedom. He began a body of observational astronomy that even today, underpins the large body of stellar tables. His goal was to make astronomy a more exact science, to clean out incomplete descriptions of celestial motion, and replace speculation with universal constants.

Newcomb was professor of mathematics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins (1884-1893). He was an editor of the American Journal of Mathematics for many years. He was also a founding member and first president (1899-1905) of the American Astronomical Society. He served as president of the American Mathematical Society from 1897 to 1898.

His remarkable essays, many of which were written for popular magazines like Harper’s and the American Review, helped shape a generation of astronomers. He formulated his thoughts on "Life in the Universe", and published the collection in June 1906. Excerpts of his reflections are included in the "Legends of Astrobiology"–a multi-part historical series of informative 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.


It is a scientific inference, based on facts so numerous as not to admit of serious question, that during the history of our globe there has been a continually improving development of life. As ages upon ages pass, new forms are generated, higher in the scale than those which preceded them, until at length reason appears and asserts its sway. In a recent well-known work Alfred Russel Wallace has argued that this development of life required the presence of such a rare combination of conditions that there is no reason to suppose that it prevailed anywhere except on our earth. It is quite impossible in the present discussion to follow his reasoning in detail; but it seems to me altogether inconclusive. Not only does life, but intelligence, flourish on this globe under a great variety of conditions as regards temperature and surroundings, and no sound reason can be shown why under certain conditions, which are frequent in the universe, intelligent beings should not acquire the highest development.

The star, Lalande 21185, a dim red dwarf, may have as many as three Jupiter-class planets — including innermost planetary candidate "b" depicted with rings and two moons
Credit: John Whatmough

Now let us look at the subject from the view of the mathematical theory of probabilities. A fundamental tenet of this theory is that no matter how improbable a result may be on a single trial, supposing it at all possible, it is sure to occur after a sufficient number of trials–and over and over again if the trials are repeated often enough. For example, if a million grains of corn, of which a single one was red, were all placed in a pile, and a blindfolded person were required to grope in the pile, select a grain, and then put it back again, the chances would be a million to one against his drawing out the red grain. If drawing it meant he should die, a sensible person would give himself no concern at having to draw the grain. The probability of his death would not be so great as the actual probability that he will really die within the next twenty-four hours. And yet if the whole human race were required to run this chance, it is certain that about fifteen hundred, or one out of a million, of the whole human family would draw the red grain and meet his death.

Now apply this principle to the universe. Let us suppose, to fix the ideas, that there are a hundred million worlds, but that the chances are one thousand to one against any one of these taken at random being fitted for the highest development of life or for the evolution of reason. The chances would still be that one hundred thousand of them would be inhabited by rational beings whom we call human. But where are we to look for these worlds? This no man can tell. We only infer from the statistics of the stars–and this inference is fairly well grounded–that the number of worlds which, so far as we know, may be inhabited, are to be counted by thousands, and perhaps by millions.

Expecting Every Variety

In a number of bodies so vast we should expect every variety of conditions as regards temperature and surroundings. If we suppose that the special conditions which prevail on our planet are necessary to the highest forms of life, we still have reason to believe that these same conditions prevail on thousands of other worlds. The fact that we might find the conditions in millions of other worlds unfavorable to life would not disprove the existence of the latter on countless worlds differently situated.

The right star, our Sun, at the right distance, our planet, and for the right amount of time in stable orbit: billions of years later…
Credit: NASA

Coming down now from the general question to the specific one, we all know that the only worlds the conditions of which can be made the subject of observation are the planets which revolve around the sun, and their satellites. The question whether these bodies are inhabited is one which, of course, completely transcends not only our powers of observation at present, but every appliance of research that we can conceive of men devising. If Mars is inhabited, and if the people of that planet have equal powers with ourselves, the problem of merely producing an illumination which could be seen in our most powerful telescope would be beyond all the ordinary efforts of an entire nation. An unbroken square mile of flame would be invisible in our telescopes, but a hundred square miles might be seen. We cannot, therefore, expect to see any signs of the works of inhabitants even on Mars. All that we can do is to ascertain with greater or less probability whether the conditions necessary to life exist on the other planets of the system.

The moon being much the nearest to us of all the heavenly bodies, we can pronounce more definitely in its case than in any other. We know that neither air nor water exists on the moon in quantities sufficient to be perceived by the most delicate tests at our command. It is certain that the moon’s atmosphere, if any exists, is less than the thousandth part of the density of that around us. The vacuum is greater than any ordinary air-pump is capable of producing. We can hardly suppose that so small a quantity of air could be of any benefit whatever in sustaining life; an animal that could get along on so little could get along on none at all.

But the proof of the absence of life is yet stronger when we consider the results of actual telescopic observation. An object such as an ordinary city block could be detected on the moon. If anything like vegetation were present on its surface, we should see the changes which it would undergo in the course of a month, during one portion of which it would be exposed to the rays of the unclouded sun, and during another to the intense cold of space. If men built cities, or even separate buildings the size of the larger ones on our earth, we might see some signs of them.

In recent times we not only observe the moon with the telescope, but get still more definite information by photography. The whole visible surface has been repeatedly photographed under the best conditions. But no change has been established beyond question, nor does the photograph show the slightest difference of structure or shade which could be attributed to cities or other works of man. To all appearances the whole surface of our satellite is as completely devoid of life as the lava newly thrown from Vesuvius. We next pass to the planets. Mercury, the nearest to the sun, is in a position very unfavorable for observation from the earth, because when nearest to us it is between us and the sun, so that its dark hemisphere is presented to us. Nothing satisfactory has yet been made out as to its condition. We cannot say with certainty whether it has an atmosphere or not. What seems very probable is that the temperature on its surface is higher than any of our earthly animals could sustain. But this proves nothing.

We know that Venus has an atmosphere. This was very conclusively shown during the transits of Venus in 1874 and 1882. But this atmosphere is so filled with clouds or vapor that it does not seem likely that we ever get a view of the solid body of the planet through it. Some observers have thought they could see spots on Venus day after day, while others have disputed this view. On the whole, if intelligent inhabitants live there, it is not likely that they ever see sun or stars. Instead of the sun they see only an effulgence in the vapory sky which disappears and reappears at regular intervals.


When we come to Mars, we have more definite knowledge, and there seems to be greater possibilities for life there than in the case of any other planet besides the earth. The main reason for denying that life such as ours could exist there is that the atmosphere of Mars is so rare that, in the light of the most recent researches, we cannot be fully assured that it exists at all. The very careful comparisons of the spectra of Mars and of the moon made by Campbell at the Lick Observatory failed to show the slightest difference in the two. If Mars had an atmosphere as dense as ours, the result could be seen in the darkening of the lines of the spectrum produced by the double passage of the light through it. There were no lines in the spectrum of Mars that were not seen with equal distinctness in that of the moon. But this does not prove the entire absence of an atmosphere. It only shows a limit to its density. It may be one-fifth or one-fourth the density of that on the earth, but probably no more.

That there must be something in the nature of vapor at least seems to be shown by the formation and disappearance of the white polar caps of this planet. Every reader of astronomy at the present time knows that, during the Martian winter, white caps form around the pole of the planet which is turned away from the sun, and grow larger and larger until the sun begins to shine upon them, when they gradually grow smaller, and perhaps nearly disappear. It seems, therefore, fairly well proved that, under the influence of cold, some white substance forms around the polar regions of Mars which evaporates under the influence of the sun’s rays. It has been supposed that this substance is snow, produced in the same way that snow is produced on the earth, by the evaporation of water.

But there are difficulties in the way of this explanation. The sun sends less than half as much heat to Mars as to the earth, and it does not seem likely that the polar regions can ever receive enough of heat to melt any considerable quantity of snow. Nor does it seem likely that any clouds from which snow could fall ever obscure the surface of Mars.

But a very slight change in the explanation will make it tenable. Quite possibly the white deposits may be due to something like hoar-frost condensed from slightly moist air, without the actual production of snow. This would produce the effect that we see. Even this explanation implies that Mars has air and water, rare though the former may be. It is quite possible that air as thin as that of Mars would sustain life in some form. Life not totally unlike that on the earth may therefore exist upon this planet for anything that we know to the contrary. More than this we cannot say.

Outer Realms

In the case of the outer planets the answer to our question must be in the negative.

Cassini Jupiter
Detail stripes from rotating storms in background, one of Jupiter’s moon in foreground Credit: NASA/JPL Cassini

It now seems likely that Jupiter is a body very much like our sun, only that the dark portion is too cool to emit much, if any, light. It is doubtful whether Jupiter has anything in the nature of a solid surface. Its interior is in all likelihood a mass of molten matter far above a red heat, which is surrounded by a comparatively cool, yet, to our measure, extremely hot, vapor. The belt-like clouds which surround the planet are due to this vapor combined with the rapid rotation. If there is any solid surface below the atmosphere that we can see, it is swept by winds such that nothing we have on earth could withstand them. But, as we have said, the probabilities are very much against there being anything like such a surface. At some great depth in the fiery vapor there is a solid nucleus; that is all we can say.

The planet Saturn seems to be very much like that of Jupiter in its composition. It receives so little heat from the sun that, unless it is a mass of fiery vapor like Jupiter, the surface must be far below the freezing-point.

We cannot speak with such certainty of Uranus and Neptune; yet the probability seems to be that they are in much the same condition as Saturn. They are known to have very dense atmospheres, which are made known to us only by their absorbing some of the light of the sun. But nothing is known of the composition of these atmospheres.

To sum up our argument: the fact that, so far as we have yet been able to learn, only a very small proportion of the visible worlds scattered through space are fitted to be the abode of life does not preclude the probability that among hundreds of millions of such worlds a vast number are so fitted. Such being the case, all the analogies of nature lead us to believe that, whatever the process which led to life upon this earth–whether a special act of creative power or a gradual course of development–through that same process does life begin in every part of the universe fitted to sustain it. The course of development involves a gradual improvement in living forms, which by irregular steps rise higher and higher in the scale of being. We have every reason to believe that this is the case wherever life exists. It is, therefore, perfectly reasonable to suppose that beings, not only animated, but endowed with reason, inhabit countless worlds in space. It would, indeed, be very inspiring could we learn by actual observation what forms of society exist throughout space, and see the members of such societies enjoying themselves by their warm firesides. But this, so far as we can now see, is entirely beyond the possible reach of our race, so long as it is confined to a single world.