Subterranean Life

Hell.  The centre of the Earth.  The locus of the Devil and his legions.  The lowliest and most corrupt place in the entire universe.

Aristotle had pictured an unchanging cosmos of nested crystalline spheres each made of ether, the fifth element.  The lowly Earth was placed at its centre, the only region of space subject to change and decay.

The Church had gone a step further.  Dante’s great poem, the Divine Comedy, (1308-1321) describes a journey through the Christian universe.  The quest starts on the planet’s surface, descends into the bowels through the circles of Hell, each populated by the sinful dead, and ends at the Earth’s core. Dante’s subterranean vision mirrored Aristotle’s universe above.

The notion stuck, for some at least, until the C18th.  One theologian suggested that the Earth’s rotation was a result of the damned scrambling to escape Hell.  Perhaps not, brother.  The idea of nested spheres persisted in scientific circles.  Newton’s friend, astronomer Edmond Halley, proposed in a paper published by the Royal Society in 1692 that several rotating globes inside the Earth caused its magnetic field.

The first striking use of Halley’s idea came in the form of Ludvig Holberg’s Nicolaii Klimii iter Subterraneum (1745).  Translated as A Journey to the World Underground, a young Norwegian stumbles down into the Earth to discover an inner planet populated by intelligent non-human lifeforms.

But the industrial revolution changed all that.  The steam engine opened up the veins of the world.  The fossil record spewed out signatures of creatures no longer found.  The dinosaur was reborn.  Among countless others.  (Reword last sentence).

As geology developed and the death roll of extinction grew, the terrible extent of history began to dawn.  Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) wielded the new geology like a club.  Verne’s book is a voyage through a subterranean world, and a conquest of space.  Gone are Dante’s mythical speculations of an Earthly core, locus of the Devil and his legions.  In its place is a quest into the depths of evolutionary time.  The explorers find the interior alive with prehistoric plant and animal life.  And their aim is to possess nature for science.

When Darwinism provided writers with the metaphor of evolution, around seventy futuristic fantasies were spawned in England alone between 1870 and 1900.  One of the first, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), was a book about subterranean supermen.

His fascinating, if bizarre, tale is set in a subterranean world of well-lit caverns.  As with Ludvig Holberg’s story, Lytton’s book begins as the narrator falls into an underground hollow.  Their heroes, it seems, are unduly careless.

Nonetheless, a mysterious human-like race is discovered, who derive immense power from vril, an all-permeating fluid that has enabled them to master nature.  Indeed, The Coming Race proved to be truly inspiring for one industrialist; he made a fortune from a strength-giving beef extract elixir known ever since as Bovril.

But the idea of subsurface life is with us still.  On Earth, and on Mars.  The relatively new field of ‘deep biology’ has unearthed bacterial spores trapped in three-billion-year-old rock in a South African gold mine, and minute single-celled organisms, foraminifera, living at a depth of seven miles in the Marianas Trench, the deepest location in the Pacific Ocean.

And in 2007, NASA discovered seven candidate skylight entrances into subterranean caverns on Mars.  All seven are located on the flanks of Arsia Mons (southernmost of the massive Tharsis-ridge shield volcanoes), a region with widespread collapse pits that may well indicate an abundance of subsurface void spaces.

Is there some form of Martian life below?

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