Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The canals of Mars

It happened way before the idea of Cydonia.

Before anyone saw a face or pyramids on Mars, there were canals.  Or that was the idea, anyway.  Wired reminds us of this in an installment of their "Fantastically Wrong" series, describing the initial observations of astronomer Percival Lowell.

In 1884, Lowell believed that Mars was home to a race of intelligent beings.  Why?  Just look at the planet's surface.  It appears riddled with carved lines and channels.  To Percival Lowell, these were canals for irrigation.  Where was the water?  Well it came from the polar ice caps that Lowell surmised must melt a bit on a semiannual basis.  The liquid water would then travel through the canals and be distributed across Mars.  Lowell went on to take his observations and develop a complicated chart of how the canals network and interconnect.  As he concluded:

"That Mars is inhabited by beings of some sort or other we may consider as certain as it is uncertain what those beings may be."

You can't blame him.  Through the limited resolution of that 19th Century telescope, "canals" are very much what these lines appear to be and indeed we now know that water did once flow freely on Mars.  It still might, just in greatly limited amounts.  Sadly as we developed more sophisticated telescopes, astronomers began to find that despite all of his hard work and investment of personal fortune, Lowell was mistaken.  The lines are an illusion of natural features.  There were no canals on Mars and there was probably never a civilization.  NASA probes such as Viking and Curiosity then came along and put the whole boondoggle to rest for good.

For me, this is just another example of how far back our fascination with Mars goes.  Woven in with that fascination seems to be this omnipresent sense that someone lives on the planet.  That notion is still around today or a variation upon it in that the Martian civilization is now deceased, the once proud race leaving their monuments behind for us humans to "look upon and despair" to paraphrase Percy Shelley.  It's funny.  The "Cydonia" theory of faces and pyramids on Mars is one I just can't fully let go of, despite all of the evidence to the contrary.  Maybe it's just the romantic in me.  I'm not like Shelley, however.  More like John Taylor.  Yes, that's a New Romantics joke.  But I digress...

I wonder how much influence the mistaken observations of Percival Lowell had on Edgar Rice Burroughs?  Yeah, not the Burroughs that I usually write about on here but the one who created the characters of Tarzan and John Carter.

Please banish that horrible John Carter movie from your mind.  Right now.

Thank you.

The Edgar Rice Burroughs books debuted in 1912 and were about a Civil War veteran named John Carter who gets transported to Mars (or Barsoom as it is called by its natives) under mysterious circumstances.  He then becomes enmeshed in swashbuckling adventures involving the bizarre races, savage beasts, and hot women of the Red Planet.  My first introduction to the series was...of course...through the Marvel comic book series, John Carter: Warlord of Mars.

Fear not.  I did eventually seek out the books or at least the first installment of the series.  It was such an influence over so many works of fiction, how could I afford not to?  Now I'm left wistful, imaging that a civilization once flourished upon Mars but whose lifespan was cut tragically short by "an ecological 9/11" as Mac Tonnies put it.

Fanciful and without solid evidence?  Pretty much, but a warning to humanity nevertheless.

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