Imagine that you wake up one morning, sit at your computer, and you are bombarded with links to a developing story from a major news outlet: Stephen Hawking, by making novel use of Cambridge University’s new quantum supercomputer to analyze data from SETI’s telescope array, has discerned that the universe is awash with signals from intelligent life. It reads like a regular science story, at first, but soon it is revealed that Hawking and his colleagues have tapped into an extra-terrestrial television transmission, and are even now watching, breathless, as the first, dream-like images of alien civilizations display themselves on the Q-computer’s tiny monitor.
You and your friends refresh your browsers compulsively, talking over each new description that emerges of strange alien races and the exotic landscapes they inhabit, as gleaned from upon the wacky sitcoms and low-budget reality shows that they are indiscriminately beaming into space. Then, questions are raised, skepticism emerges. You begin to have doubts. Eventually, you realize that you have been taken in by a clever hoax—you ought to have known better than to trust Fox News, after all—but despite the deception, you find that you cannot help but appreciate how, for one shining moment, people everywhere had set aside their petty rivalries and believed in marvels from above.
Such is how the people of New York City must have felt during the summer of 1835 when the New York Sun published a series of articles describing the startling lunar discoveries that had recently been made by the famous astronomer John Herschel from his observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. Using cutting-edge “hydro-oxygen magnifiers,” Herschel had developed a powerful new telescope that could achieve an astounding magnification of 42,000x—enough to resolve objects on the lunar surface as small as 18 inches in diameter—and project the images onto the wall of his observatory. Purporting to be a reprint from a supplement to the (non-existent) Edinburgh Journal of Science penned by Herschel’s assistant, Dr. Andrew Grant, it contained just the right mixture popular science buzzwords and technical minutia to render itself plausible.