The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

“What a merry Company there is of Us, in the Universe”

Earlier this week, the world received the exciting news of the NASA rover “Curiosity” successfully landing on Mars. The great questions of whether or not we are alone in the Universe, whether other life exists and what forms it might take call out to us for answers. But these are not merely the questions of this present “Space Age.” Both John and John Quincy Adams took great interest in questions of astronomy.

Sir William Herschel’s work with telescopes and writings on the Milky Way inspired John Adams to write, “Herschell indeed with his new Glass, has discovered the most magnificent Spectacle that ever was seen or imagined, and I suppose it is chiefly as a Spectacle that his Discovery is admired. If all those Single double, tripple quadruple Worlds are peopled as fully as every leaf and drop is in this, what a merry Company there is of Us, in the Universe? . . . Why are We keept so unacquainted with each other? . . . The Bishop of Landaff, has made the Trees, not walk, but feel and think, and why should We not at once settle it that every Attom, thinks and feels? An universe tremblingly alive all over.”

While John Adams was content to ruminate on such thoughts philosophically, John Quincy Adams put these questions to the federal government. “The voyages of discovery . . . at the expence of those [European] Nations,” Adams remarked in his first annual message to Congress on December 6, 1825, “have not only redounded to their glory, but to the improvement of human knowledge.” Now it was time for the United States to join in such pursuits by erecting an “Astronomical Observatory. . .to be in constant attendance of Observation upon the phenomina of the Heavens.” The United States had a “sacred debt” of “returning light for light,” but that was not possible as long as “the Earth revolves in perpetual darkness to our unsearching eyes.”

One can certainly imagine with what joy and fascination both these Adamses would greet our now ever searching eyes and await the discoveries and knowledge that “Curiosity” may bring to all mankind.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 8 August, 2012, 8:00 AM