The Real Hackstory of the Martians

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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We have everything we could possibly need here on our own blue marble. Air to breathe, water to drink, sun to warm our skin, and cute animals to eat and/or enslave as our “pets.”

Yet we have a leering, “Rear Window”-esque infatuation with the red brick house next door. It’s a smaller house, with a monotone paint job, a fallow lawn, and we’ve never even seen the neighbors. But something’s going on over there, man. Something’s up. And as long as our busted-up leg keeps us from walking down the street to check it out for ourselves, our imaginations will run wild.

What I’m saying is: Mars. We have a thing for Mars.

But why Mars? Of all the planets in our solar system, why does Mars capture the human imagination with theories of alien civilizations? Why Martians and not, say, Jupiterians?

The answer is simple: Italian is a tricky language for English speakers.

Leave the Ray Gun, Take the Canali

It all started with Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli.

In 1877, Schiaparelli was the assistant observer at the Brera Observatory in Milan when he began mapping the surface of Mars. With the observatory’s strong telescope, and a bit of good timing—Mars and Earth’s orbits had brought the two planets relatively close together—Schiaparelli was able to discern lighter and darker portions of the Martian landscape.

On Schiaparelli’s maps, these areas became seas and continents. He named them after bits of history and mythology, like Eden, Cydonia, Noachis (Noah), and Prometheus.

He also observed and mapped about a hundred canali—channels—crisscrossing the Martian “continents” and connecting its “seas.”

Schiaparelli’s Martian landscape. Kind of looks like something Tolkein would’ve drawn if he was an astronomer instead of a philologist.

Schiaparelli published his findings, which were picked up by English language journals and newspapers. When the journalists translated it from Schiaparelli’s Italian they mangled one particularly important term: canali.

As I just mentioned, canali means “channels.” But, it also looks a lot more like a different English word: canals. So that’s what the Anglophone journal editors went with and other media followed suit.

Channels and canals are pretty similar things, but there’s one big difference: channels occur naturally, but canals must be designed and built, traditionally by humans.

This last bit would have been especially evident to the people living in the 1870s. Less than a decade earlier, the Suez Canal had been completed, and it was the engineering wonder of the era. Channels could form anywhere, but canals had to be built by something intelligent and persistent. Canals were feats of civilization.

Mind, Schiaparelli himself later realized that his observations had been the result of an optical illusion: that his eyes had seen random discolorations on Mars’ surface and his brain had organized them into patterns—not unlike how we look at the apparent chaos of stars in the night sky and connect them with imaginary lines to create constellations. And Schiaparelli had always meant “channels”—implying nothing of their origin, let alone intelligent Martian life.

Giovanni Schiaparelli, who apparently liked getting his picture taken as much as I do.

But the story had already taken off in the English-speaking world. If Mars had Earth-like canals, then it must have human-like intelligent life to dig them.1 2

Percival Lowell: Rich Guy with a Big Telescope

Percival Lowell was born to a wealthy Boston family and, as such, you better believe he went to Harvard.

He graduated in 1876—just a year before Schiaparelli observed his canali. He gave a speech at his graduation on the formation of the solar system. I guess back then, rather than booking a celebrity alumnus, they just let the wealthiest student get up there and riff on their hobbies.

Lowell went on to work in textiles, but he never stopped being an astronomy nut. He read translations of Schiaparelli’s work in the 1890s, including that “canal” bullsh*t, and was all jacked up for some Martian observation the next time Mars got nice and close to Earth.

See, when you’re a prominent person with an inheritance and a successful textile biz, it can afford you certain opportunities. For example, let’s say you like Mars, you’ve read about it, and you want to get a good look yourself. Well, as a hobbyist of means, you’d simply build an observatory.

In the lead up to the 1894 Martian opposition (when Mars drew closest to Earth), Lowell picked out a nice plot in Flagstaff, Arizona, which had a high altitude, thin atmosphere, and was remote, which mitigated light pollution. All of these factors made it a prime location for building an observatory named after himself.

So, Lowell built the Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill (sounds like he also named the hill).

Lowell got to observing and sketching Mars’ surface, much like Schiaparelli had done almost 20 years earlier. And, like Schiaparelli, he found the canali.

Percival Lowell. Now here’s an astronomer who likes getting his picture taken.

Lowell soon announced that he had discovered canals on Mars’ surface, and oases, and accompanying vegetation, and evidence of a dying civilization attempting to irrigate their Martian deserts. All “proof” of intelligent life on Mars.

Basically, he saw what he wanted to see, and what he thought Schiaparelli said he had seen. But all of it was Lowell’s imagination fueled by mistranslation and multiplied by speculation.

But Lowell didn’t know any better, so he published and pressed his narrative and it caught the public’s imagination.

It’s worth noting that other scientists couldn’t replicate Lowell’s findings. Lowell would counter, saying they were only visible under the right conditions.3

But as far as newspapers were concerned, those other scientists and their “uh, we don’t see any canals on Mars” theories were boring. Lowell’s material was a much better hook, generating way more clicks, or however they measured reader engagement back then.

Note, for example, Lilian Whiting’s 1906 New York Times piece on Lowell, titled: “There Is Life on the Planet Mars.” Here’s a taste:

“That there are canals on Mars is to-day an accepted fact of astronomy, by any doubt of which the doubter merely argues himself unknown.”

Whiting also wrote:

“This discovery is due to the brilliant genius, the persistent energy, and the marvelous power in research of Percival Lowell.”

Kind of a puff piece, right? I get Whiting’s enthusiasm, but this wasn’t exactly objective journalism.4

The War of the Worlds

With Martian life firmly in the minds of the public and the media—if not in the minds of more reserved career scientists—there was no stopping Mars’ pop culture invasion.

Only four years after Lowell had made his Mars observations and became the first person to make the Martian canal claim (on purpose), H.G. Wells’ seminal work, The War of the Worlds, was published as a magazine serial in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Wells created the story of a 12-day Martian invasion of Earth. It’s since become a foundational work of science fiction and was one of the first stories about humans and extraterrestrials in conflict.5

Cool.

Wells was influenced by Lowell’s publications on Martian life. Schiaparelli had accidentally unleashed the public’s imagination, and Lowell had fostered it. But Wells had tapped into the most potent aspect of public imagination: fear.

If H.G. Wells had tapped the fear cask, Orson Welles bashed it open like a prohibition-era cop with a sledgehammer.

In 1938, Orson Welles worked with The Mercury Theater on the Air to broadcast a radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds. Only, instead of presenting the story as fiction, Welles played it as a series of live news bulletins about a Martian landing in New Jersey.

For thousands of panicked listeners, it was as if Welles had invaded their brain’s irrational fear center with little green men. Subsequent radio adaptations caused similar episodes of mass hysteria and, sometimes, deaths. It sounds silly now, but keep in mind that the New York Times had, not so long ago, published an article called “There Is Life on the Planet Mars” that basically called Martian life skeptics morons.6 7

Mars (Still) Attacks!

Visceral fear of a Martian invasion has largely run its course by now, but we’re still fascinated by the Martian frontier. Popular science fiction films now take a slightly more grounded approach to the exploration of Mars, but it still tends to explore extraterrestrial life (unless they’re going for kitsch, or Matt Damon growing sh*t potatoes).

Wealthy enthusiasts like Lowell no longer purchase observatories, but rather look to the future of commercial interplanetary space flight. And the destination is almost always the same: Mars.

In the 1960s, NASA’s Mariners 4, 6, and 7 got close enough to Mars to snap some close-ups. As it turns out, there were no canals, canalis, channels—whatever your word for them, they didn’t exist.

Schiaparelli had been right to doubt his own observations: they were indeed the result of the human mind and eye’s tendency to perceive patterns where none exist, particularly when using a telescope lens to observe detail at the limits of its range and resolution.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t Martian cities with vast canal systems underground, right?8

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. NASA. (2003, October 30). The ‘Canali’ and the First Martians. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/postsecondary/features/F_Canali_and_First_Martians.html
  2. Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2018, March 8). Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli: Italian Astronomer. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Giovanni-Virginio-Schiaparelli
  3. Redd, Nola Taylor. (2013, February 13). Percival Lowell Biography. Retrieved from https://www.space.com/19774-percival-lowell-biography.html
  4. Whiting, Lilian. (1906, December 9). There is Life on the Planet Mars. Retrieved from https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1906/12/09/101810982.pdf
  5. Stewart, Esther MacCallum. (Accessed April 12, 2018). The War of the Worlds: Novel by Wells. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-War-of-the-Worlds-novel-by-Wells
  6. Stewart, Esther MacCallum. (Accessed April 12, 2018). The War of the Worlds: Novel by Wells. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-War-of-the-Worlds-novel-by-Wells
  7. NASA. (2003, October 30). The ‘Canali’ and the First Martians. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/postsecondary/features/F_Canali_and_First_Martians.html
  8. Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed April 12, 2018). Canals of Mars. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/place/canals-of-Mars#ref264038

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed April 12, 2018). Canals of Mars. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/place/canals-of-Mars#ref264038
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2018, March 8). Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli: Italian Astronomer. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Giovanni-Virginio-Schiaparelli
  • Livni, Ephrat. (2017, March 23). When reporters accidentally wrote science fiction: A true story about Mars. Retrieved from https://qz.com/939584/when-reporters-accidentally-wrote-science-fiction-a-true-story-about-mars/
  • NASA. (2003, October 30). The ‘Canali’ and the First Martians. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/postsecondary/features/F_Canali_and_First_Martians.html
  • Redd, Nola Taylor. (2013, February 13). Percival Lowell Biography. Retrieved from https://www.space.com/19774-percival-lowell-biography.html
  • Stewart, Esther MacCallum. (Accessed April 12, 2018). The War of the Worlds: Novel by Wells. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-War-of-the-Worlds-novel-by-Wells
  • Whiting, Lilian. (1906, December 9). There is Life on the Planet Mars. Retrieved from https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1906/12/09/101810982.pdf

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