The history of astronomy and pushing out into the great unknown of the nature of our universe is littered with absurd ideas, the forgotten corpses of what we now see as the ridiculous. Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries such tales abound. One area that has had its share of missteps is that of trying to contact intelligent alien life in the cosmos. Even with our modern efforts at sending out probes and radio signals, we have still failed to reach our ultimate goal of proving we are not alone in the universe, and things get weirder back in those days. This was an era in which it was a given that Mars and even the moon were inhabited by intelligent beings, and there was much talk of this at the time. It may seem pretty dumb today, in an age in which Mars is thought to be inhabited by microbial life at best and the moon is a barren wasteland, but this was a different era, in which our understanding of the solar system was very incomplete. Here we will look at a brilliant mathematician, whose bizarre efforts were the first to reach out to alien life in an age before radio signals and probes.
Born in 1877 in what is now Germany, part of Lower Saxony, Germany, Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss wouldn’t have seemed like he was destined for academic greatness as one of the most respected and influential mathematicians and physicists who ever lived, known as the as the Princeps mathematicorum, or “the foremost of mathematicians.” He was born into poverty, to an illiterate mother and working class father, and at first it might seem that he was going to end up the same way, but from a very early age, Gauss began showing signs that he was actually a child prodigy with an immense natural gift for math. As early as the age of three, Gauss began to show an uncommon ability to solve math problems, as he went through school he was from the age of seven far surpassing any other children in his class, and by the time he was a teenager he had already made groundbreaking mathematical discoveries, going on to write his work on number theory called Disquisitiones Arithmeticae, which earned the theory a place in mathematics as a legitimate field and is considered to this day to be incredibly influential.
Gauss would make countless discoveries and advancements in mathematics, discovering and rediscovering important theorems, refining and advancing existing ones, proving the fundamental theorem of algebra, which had stumped some of the most respected mathematicians in the world, and driving number theory, among many, many other achievements, including even claiming to have discovered the possibility of non-Euclidean geometries. He also branched out into physics and astronomy, where he proved to be just as successful and brilliant. Perhaps one of his greatest achievements in astronomy was rediscovering the dwarf planet Ceres. The planet had been discovered by Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801, but he had lost it when it had gone behind the glare of the sun and then had never reappeared. At the time, the math just wasn’t enough to extrapolate its position from the small amount of data on hand. Gauss was fascinated with the story, and within three months was able to accurately calculate the position where it would be rediscovered by Franz Xaver von Zach that same year.
Due to his accomplishments in astronomy, Gauss would become Professor of Astronomy and Director of the astronomical observatory in Göttingen in 1807, and he would go on to develop a revolutionary theory of the motion of planetoids disturbed by large planets, which he released in 1809 as a manuscript titled Theoria motus corporum coelestium in sectionibus conicis solem ambientum, which would become a foundation for astronomical calculations ever since. He remained ever active and continued contributing to the fields of math, physics, and astronomy, but among all of this was the time he tried to signal aliens.
Besides astronomy, planets, and other celestial bodies, Gauss was also very interested in the idea of extraterrestrial life, and like many others at the time he believed that Mars and the moon were inhabited by intelligent extraterrestrials. In 1820, he decided to carry out what is perhaps the first attempt by human beings to try and contact an alien civilization, but it was not to be radio waves, but rather an idea now called Gauss’s Pythagorean right triangle proposal. It basically entailed creating an immense visual proof of the Pythagorean theorem, consisting of a right triangle bordered on each side by a square, made physically enormous enough to be seen by telescope by aliens on Mars or the moon. He wanted to do this by planting vast fields of wheat among a pine forest in Siberia shaped into the Pythagorean Theorem, with the wheat contrasting with the darker coloring of the surrounding forest, allowing it to be seen from space. Gauss believed that this would simultaneously show extraterrestrials that we had a basic grasp on geometry, as well as demonstrate our capacity for large-scale agriculture. The Austrian astronomer Johann von Littrow would be influenced by this idea when he proposed digging patterns of canals in the Sahara Desert in the shape of triangles, circles and squares and then igniting them into a fiery blaze at night to signal aliens.
Neither of these plans ever did go through, but Gauss kept at it. In 1818, he came up with an invention called a helioscope, which was a mirror that could send messages over long distances by reflecting sunlight. In 1821, Gauss used this to form another idea for contacting aliens, this time using an array of 16 mirrors to flash messages to the moon or Mars to contact the extraterrestrials he was convinced lived there. Gauss would expand this concept to an even more ambitious project including 100 mirrors, of which he would say in a March 25, 1822 letter to the German physician and astronomer Heinrich Olbers:
With 100 separate mirrors, each of 16 square feet, used conjointly, one would be able to send good heliotrope-light to the moon …. This would be a discovery even greater than that of America, if we could get in touch with our neighbors on the moon.
He never did get around to pulling this off either, but the mirror idea would be used in 1874, when the eccentric French inventor Charles Cros would unsuccessfully propose having the French government fund an enormous mirror that would theoretically actually burn messages into the surface of Mars like a giant laser beam. Another Frenchman named A. Mercier suggested covering the Eiffel Tower with giant mirrors to send messages to Mars, and the mirror thing was pretty popular for a time as a method to theoretically contact alien beings, namely Martians. Sadly, Gauss would die in 1855, leaving behind an impressive legacy but without having ever realized his dream of contacting aliens.
The idea of using optical methods to contact Martians went on all the way up until they became obsolete when Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first radio message in 1899, heralding the dawn of a new era of human communication. On Nov. 16, 1974, astronomer Frank Drake would send the first radio signals specifically to contact alien civilizations to M-13, a cluster of stars in the constellation Hercules from an observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. And so, the days of giant mirrors and physical landscapes to contact aliens ended, the new era began, and we still have had no luck. One day we may finally make contact somehow, and we can all look back and think about the first time we tried, when a mathematical genius wanted to reach aliens with wheat and mirrors.