and Canals on Mars
Lowell drove his construction team hard. It was 1894, and up on a high plateau in
the northern part of the
, the wealthy Bostonian was racing to complete an observatory with a
24-inch telescope. He was anxious for the completion of the observatory because
the large telescope would finally allow the surface features of Mars, which would
be making its closest approach to Earth in 15 years, to be distinguished.
It would only be a few months that Mars would be this accessible, looming
large in the night sky. After a time that
seemed like eternity, the building was finally complete.
excitedly turned his telescope toward the red planet.
He noted Mars’ polar caps and the irregular complexion of the surface. But
above all, his attention was captured by what appeared to be a set of linear markings
— what he perceived as a hundred "canals" covering the planet.
was not the first person to see canals on Mars and he certainly was not the last. During the two previous close approaches of
Mars, a couple of Italian astronomers also observed unique features on the surface. They made note of scraggly markings that they
called canali, or channels. When American journalists caught wind of the story,
they mis-translated the word as "canals".
Although similar to the true translation, the word canals carried with it
the inference of intelligent engineering.
Upon hearing about what the Italians had seen,
wanted to look for similar features, only with a more powerful telescope.
subsequently repeated the observations of the Italian astronomers and news of his
discovery spread quickly. Even the sober
Wall Street Journal picked up the Mars fever, writing in a year-end summary of major
events that, "the most extraordinary event of the year is the proof afforded
by astronomical observations that conscious, intelligent life exists on Mars."
’s observations sufficient to serve as evidence of life on Mars? Lowell himself was thoroughly convinced.
He reasoned that the linear features on Mars represented formations that
could not possibly have occurred naturally.
concluded that an intelligent civilization inhabited Mars.
He proposed that, due to a lack of water on Mars, this civilization was struggling
to stay alive. Therefore,
said, the Martians had constructed water canals to transport water from the frozen
polar caps to the arid lower latitudes. He admitted that his new telescope did not
actually have the resolution to truly see the canals themselves.
The dark lines that he saw were justified as strips of lush vegetation that
were cultivated by water irrigation from the canals, thereby making the canals more
visible from Earth.
in 1855 into an aristocratic
family, Percival Lowell made his money in trade. After graduating from Harvard,
he traveled the world and became a scholar of Asian history and culture.
But his true love was astronomy. Excited
about the observations made with his new telescope,
wrote a book entitled Mars
in 1895. In this popular book
strongly and persuasively presented his case for life on Mars. He wrote: "That beings constituted physically as we are would find
Mars a most uncomfortable place is pretty certain. But there is nothing in the world
or beyond it to prevent, so far as we know, a fish with gills, for example, from
being a most superior person. A fish doubtless imagines life outside water to be
impossible; and similarly to argue that life of an order as high as our own, or
higher, is impossible because of less air to breathe… is to argue, not as a philosopher
but as a fish."
the publicity and popularity of
Lowell’s observations, astronomers equal in respect
disagreed with his findings. During those
times, astronomical photography was hardly developed, so the only images of Mars
were laboriously drawn by hand. There were
a few professional astronomers that also claimed to see the canals, but there were
many more that did not. It has been rumored
that colleagues of
challenged his hand-drawn maps of Mars. Fellow
astronomers at the observatory drew lines on a ball the size of a basketball. They then placed a small telescope at a precise
distance that would replicate the resolution achieved by the 24-inch telescope focused
on the real planet Mars.
’s colleagues then challenged him to draw a map of the “canals” drawn
on the ball. Upon comparison of the ball
and the map, the astronomers found absolutely no correlation between the lines that
drew and the lines that were drawn on the map.
allowed his desire to see canals on Mars to influence his observations?
This instance, coupled with astronomers’ own observations, caused many to
speak out against
. For example, the director of
Lick Observatory described
’s writings as "misleading and unfortunate half-truths." The head of the Mars observing section of
the British Astronomical Society wrote: "Had it not been for the foreknowledge
that ‘the canals are there,’ I would have missed at least three-quarters of them."
next close approach of Mars to Earth was in 1910.
By this time astronomers had access to better methods for capturing images of planets
and larger telescopes that yielded better resolution.
Images of Mars now displayed the “canals” as highly irregular and disconnected
surface features. Moreover, astronomers had
made further observations that suggested Mars to be too dry to support large life
forms. Instead of water, the polar caps are
made of carbon dioxide – more commonly known as dry ice.
Alfred Wallace, the co-creator of the theory of natural selection with Charles
Darwin, wrote ardently: "Not only is Mars not inhabited by intelligent beings
as Mr. Lowell postulates, it is absolutely uninhabitable."
had fallen victim to the power of suggestion and the
dangers of allowing subjectivity to influence his scientific conclusions.
the new evidence to the contrary, public belief in canals and life in Mars did not
subside. Images of Mars with intricate canal
systems were depicted in school science textbooks well into the 1950s.
’s mistake about Mars started a century of speculation about life on
Mars that is especially pervasive in popular culture.
The first example of this was written within three years of
’s book. H.G. Wells published
The War of the Worlds,
a memorable and influential piece of science fiction.
In this work, H.G. Wells described intelligent creatures living on Mars. The civilization on Mars realizes that the
canals are not enough to sustain life on the dying planet. In desperation, the Martians
seek a new source of water by invading Earth with superior military technology. The result is their sickness and demise due
to common terrestrial microorganisms. Stemming
from Lowell’s observations over a century ago and sparked by The War of the Worlds, the numbers of books,
movies, songs, and other media sources have been heavily influenced by human’s curiosity
about life in the universe.