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Thomas Dick's "Sublime Science" : Return to a time when life was thought to exist on every planet, on comets, and maybe even the Sun.

"We ought to view a comet, not as . . . a harbinger of evil, but as a splendid world . . . conveying millions of happy beings to survey a new region of the Divine empire."

Comets as vehicles for long-haul inter-planetary tours? This remarkable proposition was made by Thomas Dick (1774-1857), a leading popularizer of science and astronomy in the mid-19th century. Widely read in Britain and the United States, Dick was also the hardest of hard-liners favoring the "plurality of worlds," that is, the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

His influence and popularity arose partly because of the sound education he received in Scotland. Although his father intended that his son follow him as a Dundee linen weaver, young Thomas had other ambitions. At the age of nine he saw a daylight meteor "approximating to the light of the Sun" producing "universal amazement and terror." Four years later he had constructed a rudimentary telescope by scrounging old spectacle lenses and regrinding them on an apparatus of his own construction. He read voraciously about astronomy, even propping books up on the hand loom at which he toiled dutifully, if reluctantly.

Thomas was eventually released to become a pupil-teacher, then a student at Edinburgh University, a licensed preacher of the Secession Kirk, and finally a teacher. His career faltered in 1805 when the Stirling Associate Presbytery deposed him from his post of junior minister for "flagrant immorality," but his offense was not sufficiently serious to prevent him from holding responsible teaching posts for another 20 years.

Dick tried to reconcile science and religion in the vigorous and compelling prose of his articles, pamphlets, and best-selling books, as well as by public speaking. In 1817, while teaching in Perth, he started work on The Christian Philosopher, a book title by which Dick himself became known. Like many contemporaries, he sought to prove the existence of a benign God by emphasizing the extent, intricacy, and wonders of the universe -- the doctrine of "natural theology."

The Christian Philosopher or the Connection of Science and Philosophy with Religion was published in 1827 and had run to eight editions by 1842. The book covered physics, chemistry, biology, geology, anatomy, and hydrostatics; in later editions Dick added sections on photography, electricity, printing, and railways. He gave pride of place, however, to astronomy, "this sublime science" that revealed "this amazing scene of divine workmanship . . . for there can be no question, that every star we now behold . . . is the center of a system of planetary worlds, where the agency of God and his unsearchable wisdom may be endlessly varied, and perhaps more strikingly displayed than even in the system to which we belong."

Occasionally Dick made bold claims beyond the warrant of hard evidence, presenting astronomical data to weight his arguments with empirical ballast, at least by association. There was, for example, his proposition that one of the "highest orders of intelligences" (a seraph), flying faster than light for over 1 billion years, would have "advanced no further than the suburbs of creation." Dick wrote with seeming authority because he was both a skilled observer and widely read in astronomy. He described, for example, Laplace's suggestion that some celestial bodies might have gravitational fields of such strength as would prevent light escaping from them, a precursor of the concept of black holes.

Dundee's Astronomical Sage

With his literary earnings Dick bought some land at Broughty Ferry, near Dundee in Scotland, transporting 8,000 barrow-loads of soil to build a single-story cottage, later enlarged and named Herschel House in honor of William Herschel, his paragon. The dwelling's "tower room," his observatory, contained three achromatic telescopes with focal lengths of 1.7 meters, 1 meter, and 500 millimeters, this last on an equatorial mount. He also designed and constructed unusual "aerial reflectors," a variant of Herschel's system whereby an observer worked with his or her back to the sky, looking through a side-arm attached to the main instrument. Dick claimed that his reflectors gave observers easy, comfortable viewing and especially bright images, though later astronomers have cast some doubt on these claims, drawing attention, for example, to the difficulty of aligning the instruments on faint objects.

In The Practical Astronomer (1845) Dick described his observatory, set 200 feet above sea level with expansive views to the east, west, and south. The 8-foot-square room, which bowed outward to the south, had a special north-wall opening for observing Polaris. In 1843 Dick managed to observe Venus just 58 arcminutes from the Sun's limb, an observation that was duly reported to the Royal Astronomical Society and published in its Monthly Notices.

But it was as a writer and a lecturer that Dick made the most impact. He had a good audience in Scotland, which boasted the "best-educated peasantry in Europe." He pioneered book-lending and adult classes in Methven and supported the Watt Institution at Dundee (a forerunner of the University of Abertay), skewing its curriculum toward astronomy. Although Dick never visited the United States his writing was immensely popular there. His admirers included Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, all of whom visited him. In 1832 the senate of Union College in Schenectady, New York, "voluntarily and unanimously" conferred upon him a doctorate of laws and sent the resulting diploma, a superb specimen of calligraphy on vellum, "without expense through the medium of Rev. Dr. Sprague of Albany, NY." Thereafter the Dundee astronomer was known by his American title: the Rev. Dr. Dick. A later president of Union College, Charles A. Richmond, opined that "Dick's Philosophy was a household book with us in my father's family as it was in many other Scottish homes in this country."

Dick's American connection was further strengthened when he wrote the introduction to Elijah J. Burritt's Geography of the Heavens (1845). There he advocated the study of astronomy, citing not only its support for navigation, agriculture, and chronology but also its ability to "dissipate superstitious notions . . . to enlarge the capacity of the mind, to ennoble human faculties and raise the soul above groveling affections and vicious pursuits" -- good, post-Enlightenment advice not irrelevant in our post-Modern era.

A Crowded Cosmos

Each of Dick's popular books on astronomy addressed the "plurality of worlds," about which his enthusiasm waxed ever stronger. His Celestial Scenery (1837) was subtitled And a Plurality of Worlds. Soon thereafter, in The Sidereal Heavens (1840), this had become "An Infinity of Worlds." In this latter book he populated not only every planet in the solar system but also their moons, comets, and the rings of Saturn. He was among the few pluralists who thought that there might be life on the Sun, though he hedged his bets: "It would be presumptuous in man to affirm that the Creator has not placed innumerable orders of sentient and intelligent beings . . . throughout the expansive regions of the Sun." He generally steered clear of the perennial theological controversy concerning the spiritual state of beings on other worlds and the implications this might have for Christian doctrines of divine incarnation. Dick was also one of the select few who tried to estimate the size of extraterrestrial populations. Taking the population density of England as his standard -- an odd choice for a Scot from Dundee -- he estimated that Mercury had a population of 8.9 billion beings, Venus 53.5 billion, and the Moon 4.2 billion. The entire universe, he later calculated, contained some 6 cents 1018 souls.

He was nevertheless cautious about contemporary enthusiasm for life on the Moon. He considered "premature and uncertain" the assertions of German astronomers that the Moon was "inhabited by rational creatures" (Wilhelm Olbers) or that it contained "great artificial works . . . erected by the lunarians" (Franz von Paula Gruithuisen). Nor was he fooled by the "Moon Hoax" of 1835, when the New York Sun falsely reported the discovery of intelligent lunar life by John Herschel. As the Sun's circulation boomed, Dick declared that Richard Adams Locke, the hoax's perpetrator, "ought to be ranked in the class of liars and deceivers." This censure perhaps arose from Dick's vigorous moral philosophy ae but it may also have been influenced by a suspicion that Locke had been satirizing the claims of Dick and other extreme pluralists.

A Master Plan

Three qualities distinguish Dick's writings from most of his fellow pluralists. First, he framed his arguments for extraterrestrial life around a clear taxonomy: Celestial Scenery described five divisions, later expanded to eight, an approach that echoed the organization of lengthy church sermons. He employed time-hallowed analogy: "There is a general similarity among all bodies of the planetary system, which tends to prove that they are intended to subserve the same ultimate designs. . . ." Other arguments included the assertion that only a plurality of worlds would be worthy of "the Infinite Creator" and the related assumption that "the most glorious and magnificent scenes displayed in the firmaments of the remoter planets" must surely have been designed for observation by "intellectual beings . . . intelligent minds to whom such a display is exhibited."

Dick's second pluralist characteristic was the detail with which he illustrated his theme, conveyed not only through fine descriptions of the scenery of other worlds (he had gifts that many a science-fiction writer would envy) but more particularly in his estimates of extraterrestrial populations.

Third, and most bizarre, he occasionally left mainstream pluralism and moved into cosmic mysticism, which proved popular nevertheless with many of his readers. In Philosophy of a Future State (1828) Dick suggested that human knowledge of the more distant parts of the universe might come from "superior beings" familiar with those parts, "intelligences [that] wing their way in short periods of time from one world to another." In order to make sense of what it was told, humanity needed to prepare itself for these visitations by studying the "leading facts and grand outlines of astronomical science."

Dick also implied that life after death was located elsewhere in the physical universe -- all the more reason for studying astronomy so as to extract the maximum benefit from our interstellar travel yet to come. His curriculum for the afterlife also included arithmetic, in order to appreciate the sheer scale of creation, and history, to give people insights into "past facts and events [and] details of the operations of divine providence" that would render the subject a "prominent object of study among the celestial inhabitants" as they unraveled the histories of other planets.

Dick's combination of competent astronomy and a religious mysticism was heady stuff that appealed to a large audience. He advocated the reform of astronomical nomenclature; he likened the classical terminology of the constellations to pagan idolatry "completely repugnant to the noble elevation of astronomical science." Dick also wrote on a wide range of other topics including women's education, which he supported strongly, curricular reform in schools, and the adoption of more rational forms of dress.

Paradoxically, this energetic and positive individual suffered considerable confusion in his private affairs. He struck unfavorable bargains with publishers. Thrice married and with numerous dependents, he lived in straitened circumstances. Some local admirers raised funds for him, and he was eventually awarded a state pension.

Nevertheless, Thomas Dick was neither an eccentric nor a failure. His influence as a writer and an educator was immense. Among his supporters were David Livingstone and the astronomers E. E. Barnard and John Brashear. In fact, Brashear made a pilgrimage to Herschel House in 1911, paying homage at Dick's grave. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an admirer of the Dundee sage, believed, like his mentor, that the more astronomical telescopes were available to the public, the better. "I hope the time will come," wrote Emerson, "when there will be a telescope in every street."

One of Dick's followers put this sentiment into action. John Mills, a wealthy industrialist, took up Dick's suggestion that all cities ought to have observatories for public enlightenment and bequeathed funds so that Dundee might have one. Mills's vision eventually bore fruit, and an observatory bearing his name opened in 1935. Mills Observatory continues to flourish. It is visited by upwards of 20,000 people each year, and on a winter evening it is not unusual for more than 100 people to use its instruments.

Of course, the jury is still out on the plurality of worlds. That this debate has remained on the public agenda, and that astronomy became and remains as popular as it does, owes more than a little to the efforts of Thomas Dick.

Roger Hennessey writes and lectures on the history of science. His most recent book, Worlds Without End: The Historic Search for Extraterrestrial Life, was published in late 1999.
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Author:Hennessey, R. A. S.
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUUS
Date:Feb 1, 2000
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