This guest blog post is from Louisa Preston, author of ‘Goldilocks and the Water Bears’. She is an astrobiologist and planetary geologist who researches the possibilities of life on other planets by studying life in the most extreme environments on Earth. Louisa will join our ‘Mind-blowing Debates’ series at SGP2016, answering the age old question, ‘is there anyone out there?’


Goldilocks and Water Bears

Louisa’s first book, ‘Goldilocks and the Water Bears: The Search for Life in the Universe’, by Bloomsbury Press

One of the most popular themes at the heart of astrobiology and nearly all space-based science-fiction epics is that of the extraterrestrial, the alien, or the menace from space. It is a topic that has greatly captured the public’s imagination. Despite the long history of speculation surrounding life in the cosmos, the image of an alien only entered the realm of public literature in the last third of the nineteenth century, even though the topic had already inflamed the popular imagination back in the seventeenth century. The birth of the modern-day alien seems, therefore, to be intricately linked to advances in astronomy and the rise of the theory of evolution.

Louisa Preston - WordPress

Dr. Louisa Preston has worked on space-mission simulations and the creation of a global database of Martian and lunar analog environments for the European Space Agency

The alien, it turns out, was invented independently three separate times: in France, Germany, and England, spurred on by the imaginative science of an American. The people most often hailed as its creators are Jules Verne in France, Kurd Lasswitz in Germany and H.G. Wells in England. The famous novelist Jules Verne first discussed extra­terrestrials in his 1870 novel Autour de la Lune (Around the Moon), but went no further as he constrained his imagination with science. He never wrote a story focused solely on aliens, as he needed proof of their existence first. In 1897, Kurd Lasswitz, the father of German science fiction, published Auf Zwei Planeten (On Two Planets), in which intelligent advanced Martians travelled to Earth, not out of some dire need to escape a dying planet or to colonise and rule the puny Earthlings but simply out of curiosity and a thirst for exploration. He believed that using aliens in his story could help illuminate the important role that science and technology played in society. He was not a scientist himself but a philosopher and historian, who adopted a scientific evolutionary universe in his stories. He once wrote that the natural order of the Universe demands not only that ‘living, feeling, thinking creatures’ exist on worlds currently inaccessible, but also that there should be ‘infinite gradations of intelligent beings inhabiting such worlds’. Also in 1897, H.G. Wells serialised The War of the Worlds – a story full of scientific ideas gleaned from evolutionary biology and astronomy, undoubtedly influenced by Wells’s mentor, the biologist T.H. Huxley (1825–1895). He devised the look and intelligence of the Martians, explored how they would have evolved beyond us due to Mars’ greater age; their ability to travel through space propelled by hydrogen gas, the means by which they coped with Earth’s stronger gravity; and finally their demise due to disease. This book launched not only Wells’ career and legacy, but also that of the alien itself. Its subject matter created an emotional connection with its readers while exploring many, some may say mundane, scientific facts.

The spread of the ideas of extraterrestrial life has jumped from science to literature to film and back again. Although the subject has always been popular since it first burst onto the literary scene, of all the rich variety of science subjects available it could never have been foreseen that this completely fictional, currently unproven, subject matter would become such a universal theme of popular culture, the poster child for science fiction itself – and no life form is more famous than the Martian.


Find out more about Louisa Preston and her new book here,