Astronomers once thought there was life on the sun

Illustration for article titled Astronomers once thought there was life on the sun

We think we live in the age most obsessed with the discovery alien life. In fact we missed that time by several hundred years. In the 1700s, astronomers thought life existed everywhere - including the sun.


Life on other planets has been a matter of speculation from the time that people were aware of the objects in the sky as anything more than points of light, but when telescopes proliferated, people really started going alien-crazy. In the 1600s, Czech astronomer Anton Schyrleus speculated that there could be life on Jupiter. In the 1800s, Percival Lowell claimed he saw evidence of civilizations on Mars, but it fell to William Herschel, in the 1700s, to make the wildest claim of all. Heschel was sure that there was life on the sun.

Herschel was not a raving amateur. A gifted astronomer, he discovered Uranus, and was the first to realize that sunlight included infrared light as well as visible light. His sister, Caroline, became famous in her own right for discovering comets, so he did not lack for intelligent conversation. He just had his own theories. Herschel believed that life existed on every celestial body in the universe. He was aware that the sun people saw was too hot to support life. He just assumed there was something underneath that burning atmosphere. When he observed sunspots, he believed that they were openings in the atmosphere, or perhaps mountains, and that if people could get a close look at the planet beneath, they would be able to spot signs of life. Herschel was not alone in his beliefs - as more information on the sun turned up, astronomers speculated on how it would affect life on the surface of the sun, and what kind of life might survive in those environments.

It as only toward the 1800s, when people realized there was no solid surface to the sun, that the idea of life on the sun was given up for good. Mars and the Moon became better prospects, and that is why there aren't any movies out there about the Earth getting invaded by the Sun People.

[Via ADS, Wired.]




Lots of stuff about sun creatures in modern(ish) speculative fic/sci fi:

  • Baxter's "Ring"
  • Clarke's "From Out of the Sun"
  • Brin's "Sundiver"