30th July 2009, 09:25 AM #1
"We live at the bottom of an atmospheric ocean. Is it possible that other organisms may live above us? If the seas of our Earth are swarming with varieties of living things, both great and small, is it not logical to assume that the 'sea' of our sky abounds with sundry forms of living things, likewise both great and small, of varied shapes, but adaptable to their celestial environment?"
So wrote American author John Philip Bessor in 1955. Similarly, in 1983 the astronomer Fred Hoyle wrote:
To me it seemed preposterous that NASA should be spending hundreds of millions of dollars in a mission to discover if there was life on Mars, while leaving unresolved the question of whether there was life a mere 50 kilometres (30 miles) above our heads.
The idea that Earth's atmosphere may sustain its own race of beings, independent of life on the planet's surface, is one which has intrigued many speculative thinkers. Although there is little evidence to support the idea, there have been some tantalising hints.
In 1917, during World War I, a strange story was submitted by an anonymous airman to a very respectable monthly magazine, The Occult Review. The writer told of an unusual experience by a fellow aviator, who did not wish his name to be cited in connection with so strange a story, but who is described as "a very experienced airman":
He told me confidentially that at a very great height he had seen a curious coloured dragon-like animal apparently flying in the air and approaching him rapidly. Understandably, the pilot had become a little unnerved and at once descended to Earth; but for fear of being ridiculed and accused of over-indulgence in alcoholic refreshment he had said nothing. Had it been an isolated experience, he might have ended by doubting his own eyes: but that first sighting was confirmed by subsequent experiences of the same kind. He suspected that other pilots may have had similar experiences, but like him were reluctant to tell their stories for fear of being laughed at by their colleagues.
Well, a story told by one unnamed aviator to another does not carry much scientific weight. What makes this one particularly interesting is that it seems to have been anticipated a few years earlier by none other than the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle's fictional story "The Horror Of The Heights" was published in the popular weekly magazine The Strand, in its November 1913 issue. Though told with Doyle's usual vivid touches and convincing detail, it makes no pretensions to be anything other than an exciting piece of science fiction. It is a typical example of the speculative writing with which H. G. Wells and others were thrilling the reading public.
The story tells of an aviator who is determined to explore the upper atmosphere in his flimsy monoplane, a machine pretty much like the plane in which Louis Bleriot had crossed the Channel only 4 years earlier. Flying at about 12,000 metres (40,000 ft) the hero encounters
the most wonderful vision that ever man has seen..... Conceive a jellyfish such as sails in our summer seas - far larger than the dome of St Paul's cathedral. It was of a light pink colour veined with a delicate green: from it there descended two long drooping tentacles.....
It becomes clear that these are living creatures that are inhabiting the upper atmosphere. Beautiful they may be, but they are also dangerous. They resent the intruder from Earth's surface, who barely manages to escape their evidently hostile manoeuvres.
Despite their hostility, however, he is determined to continue his explorations. Leaving behind the record of his first encounter - which provides the basis for Doyle's story - he sets off again, but this time he is never seen again. He disappears, along with his plane, to a fate unknown. Doyle can only speculate that he "had been overtaken and devoured by these horrible creatures at some spot in the outer atmosphere".
Doyle was writing simply to entertain us and it would be reasonable to suppose that his fantasy possesses even less substance than the story by the anonymous contributor to The Occult Review. However, not for the first time, it seems a science fiction writer was ahead of the scientists themselves.
In July 1993, two NASA observers flying above a thunderstorm made a major contribution to meteorology when they scientifically established a fact that had long been reported by flyers. Not all lightning flashes are from the clouds to the Earth: they occur also above the clouds, rising rather than descending.
The NASA observers logged 19 flashes, but it was the term they used to describe them which interests me. They likened them to -of all things- jellyfish:
They appear brightest where they top out, typically about 65 kilometres (40 miles) high, so you have the jellyfish body at the top with tentacles trailing down.
Was this what the World War I aviator saw and what Doyle was describing in his fictional story? But if so, how could he possibly know that the mysterious "aerial dragons" would resemble jellyfish? For at that time, no aircraft had been constructed capable of reaching an altitude where an aviator could have seen this phenomenon first hand.
The ground upon which we tread is known to be teeming with life. Similarly, the interior of our Earth's crust as well as our oceans are also both known to be teeming with life (and it is scientifically PROVEN to indeed be true). Does it not then seem coherent to think that our skies are also teeming with life?