Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2006



I am old enough to remember when a lot of people believed in the Canals of Mars. When I would go as a kid to the planetarium in New York City or Philadelphia in the '50s, the narrator would feel impelled to rebut the idea that Mars had Canals. While astronomers had generally dismissed the idea by 1910, much of the public remained true believers many decades afterward. The idea was still not totally dead in dead in the '80s. While Carl Sagan and Paul Fox believed the Canals malarkey, they co-wrote a book comparing photographs taken during Mars missions and the maps of Canals from early in the 20th Century. That they found little correspondence between features is less important than that they asked the question.

What is the fascination with Canals on Mars? They were widely believed waterways created by some intelligent life. It is true, as many books have claimed, that the "Canali" of Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910) could be natural waterways, but people have considered them proof conclusive of artificial waterways. Most of all Schiaparelli, who was a strong believer in intelligent life on other planets.

That the Canals exist has been very attractive. That the Lord God, or whatever, filled the universe with life and intelligence has had great appeal. Also, that the universe is an empty place if he hasn't. Contrariwise, the idea has had great appeal that humans with their life and intelligence are the reason d'etre of the universe. Mars was the last hope of those who yearned for the universe to be full of life and intelligence. It was one of the last places in this solar system where intelligent life was thought possible. Canals would have been proof conclusive.

Unfortunately for them, this last hope was dashed. Before it could be dashed. however, it had to be created. During the 1877 opposition, Schiaparelli first observed Canals on Mars. While his telescope was woefully weak then, and he never had an extremely powerful telescope at his disposal, his powers of observation were very canny. He was later considered one of the greatest astronomers in the world because he calculated the length of the day on Venus and Mercury from markings. However, Schiaparelli had his own ax to grind. His views on life on other planets more closely resembled astronomers earlier in the 19th Century. He hoped that intelligent life existed on as many planets and moons in our solar system as possible.

On the other hand, Schiaparelli was not the only one to observe the Canals. Shortly, other astronomers did too. One of the first was a Charles E. Burton, an Irish astronomer. Another who saw them was Camille Flammarion (1842-1925), the greatest publicist of the age for life on other planets. Ultimately, astronomers at the Lick Observatory in California and the Naval Observatory in D.C., those with the most powerful telescopes, saw them.

Still, some astronomers doubted Schiaparelli's Canals. Some failed to see them. Asaph Hall, who discovered the Moons of Mars, never did. Another who failed to see the Canals was the astronomer/artist Nathaniel E. Green (1823-99). In fact, he failed to see them during 1877 opposition when Schiaparelli had seen them. Noting that his map of Mars was different from Schiaparelli's, Green suggested explanations for the Canals. These encompassed all those given later, including that they may be an illusion created by random markings.

Thereafter, Green did not play a large part in the debate. The person who came to was Edward Walter Maunder (1851-1928). He, like many astronomers then, believed that conditions on Mars were advantageous to life; that, for instance, it had vast oceans. However, he didn't believe that intelligent life had evolved there. Apparently, he had religious objections to intelligent life on other planets as a member of the [Irvington] Catholic Apostolic Church. These religious objections, however, he rarely wrote about. Instead, he wrote about scientific objections. By the way, that he had religious objections did not mean that his scientific objections were not sound. Many of them were so sound that scientists accept them today. That the sides were drawn did not mean that details were not being added to the debate. In 1882 Schiaparelli added one by claiming that the canals geminated. In other words, they sometimes doubled, and were seen as two parallel canals. Gemination, while it had its fantastic aspect, did not affect the debate too much. The debaters were much more interested in other details. Another phenomena which never affected the debates too much was that a number of the canals appeared where astronomers of the time believed oceans were. The astronomer, and publicist for intelligence on other planets, W.H. Pickering was the first to notice. The reason there was never a controversy over it is simple: those who believed in vast oceans on Mars and those who believed the Canals were a land phenomena had the same objective: i.e., to prove intelligent life existed on Mars..

Pickering, for instance, was an intense believer.

With these new details in place, Maunder was responsible for the next big volley against the Canals. In 1894 he wrote a paper that suggested that the Canals were random markings that at a distance would be seen as a straight line. He also offered some evidence. He found that a piece of paper with random markings would, at a distance, be seen as a straight line. This volley had more the effect of a BB at the time: few astronomers noticed it. This was surprising since Maunder was head of the British Astronomical Association. However, over the long run, this paper helped win the war.

Meanwhile, the Canal advocates shot a volley of their own. It came in the form of a person, Percival Lowell (1855-1916). He was the scion of two very prominent Boston families, the Lowells and the Lawrences. He must have been an impossible man. Charles W. Eliot, the President of Harvard described him as "intensely egoistic and unreasonable." Also, Eliot said that he was regarded by his social circle in Boston as "a man without good judgment." In fact so strong was the belief, Eliot said, that Lowell was staying away from Boston. While Lowell was impossible, he was apparently very erudite. His previous interest had been the orient and he had written four books on Eastern thought and culture. In 1893, he changed interests, and decided to devote his energies to Mars, and wrote books about it.

This combination of headstrongness and erudition made Lowell a very effective publicist for the Canals. Publicity was something astronomers typically considered unprofessional. Even Schiaparelli, while approving of Lowell's views, did not care for him or Flammarion publicizing the Canals; and he considered Lowell more of a literary man than a scientist. Despite professional disapproval, when push came to shove, Lowell's publicizing proved a very effective weapon.

Also, his personality proved a weapon. It and his fortune allowed him to establish an observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona by 1895. While Harvard did not want anything to do with him, it helped. It loaned him its craziest canal advocates, including the publicity seeking W.H. Pickering. The observatory, of course, observed canals. Also, Lowell expounded a theory in books he published, that Mars was an old planet, and had become cold and dry. The Canals were to bring water from the polar cap to other parts of Mars.

The opponents of the Canals were not idle during this time. During the 1896 opposition of Mars, another person came to the conclusion that the Canals were an illusion from random markings, Vincenzo Cerulli (1859-1911). One bit of evidence was that a picture of the Moon seen with a low powered opera glass appeared to have canals, but not with a telescope. The illusion argument, he reached independent of Maunder, and Maunder did not know about him until 1909.

The belief disturbed Schiaparelli because he had, until then, believed Cerulli his most promising successor. Now he believed, in the case of the Canals, Cerulli was letting his biases run away with him. Camille Flammarion also believed Cerulli was letting his biases get away with him. Flammarion drew many naked eye pictures of the Moon to show that this effect did not exist.

Meanwhile, support for the illusion argument was growing in England. Another researcher confirmed Maunder's findings, and, in 1903, Maunder reported an experiment with school boys in which he had them view at a distance a map of Mars without canals. They reported seeing canals. In response, Flammarion, in 1905, said that he had done the experiment with French school boys, and none had seen canals. However, he never bothered to give any details.

Also in 1905, Lowell struck an even bigger blow for the Canals. He claimed that he had photographed them from Flagstaff and the Andes. What followed was a big campaign which convinced some prominent astronomers the illusion theory would soon be thrown on the dustheap of history. In 1908, it came time to show the photos. It is true his photos did actually show Canals. However, they were only a quarter of an inch square, and the Canals did not survive enlargement. In other ways, the photographs had the same problems human observers had. In short, cameras were not immune to human illusions.

After that shot failed, Eugene Antoniadi (1870-1944), an astronomer and very international Greek, pulled the coup de grace for the other side. While he never doubted Mars was inhabitable and inhabited, he had long opposed the Canals. Now his dislike for them became a passion: in 1909-10, he wrote a stream of publications in which he effectively convinced astronomers the Canals were an illusion.

It helped that he observed Mars during the 1909 opposition with a 32 inch telescope, very big for the time. He found no canals but random markings. In fact, he found that some canals resolved themselves into random markings under a more powerful telescope. In addition, what he had seen was verified by the 60 inch telescope at Mount Wilson, humongous for the time. Finally, he marshaled his great knowledge of literature on Mars to make the theoretical case against the Canals. In doing this, he introduced Cerulli to the English speaking world.

After that, Canals were generally discredited among astronomers. As one said:

"It is probable the Martian myth will persist. ... But for those who prefer the cold precision of fact to the warm, nebulous glow of fancy, there will be no canals on Mars for now and for some time to come."

He was right. It is true Flagstaff continued to map more and more canals. In 1910, they reached 660. Also, it is true Lowell and Flammarion remained active. Furthermore, it is true that a Lowell or Flammarion were not necessary to keep the Canal myth alive. In fact, it had its advocates way into the 1960s. They were not silenced until Mariner 4 in 1965 brought back actual photos of Mars' barren surface.

I cannot take the Canal advocates too much to task. I have looked at photos of Mars made around the turn of the last Century. It was blur upon blur. People made out what they could. The blurs were so bad even a Schiaparelli's genius for making them out failed him. By the same token, conditions were just right for an illusion.

Under the circumstances, it was easy for Mars to become a Rorschach for whatever people believed. Schiaparelli saw the Canal building Martians as Fourierist socialists, a popular ideology in the mid-19th Century. To his credit, he admitted he was acting mad, and excused himself with the adage that it was permissible once a year to be a madman. Less circumspect, Lowell saw the Canal building Martians as the minions of rich oligarchs and Martian society as a good example of survival of the fittest. This befit the wealthy and dominating Lowell. One of Lowell's astronomers, Mark Wicks, took the opposite view, and wrote a novel where the Mars of the Canals was a socialistic welfare state. It is not known how Lowell reacted.

As a fact, the Canals were a loser. Seen from another perspective, the Canal theory was not as much as of a loser. As you can infer, astronomers believed that conditions on Mars were very similar to those on Earth. A Sir William Huggins (1824-1910) in 1867 had done a spectroscopic study of Mars, and had reported that there was water vapor there. In fact, his findings made it seem like Mars was very Earth like. Many other scientists confirmed his findings, and they became a firmly entrenched belief.

In 1894, William Wallace Campbell (1862-1938) of the Lick Observatory in California disputed this. In his spectroscopic study, he compared Mars' spectrum to the Moon's rather than the Earth's, and found that there was no water. Also, its atmosphere was at most a quarter as dense as Earth's. Huggins stood by his conclusions. So did others who had verified them. The only one to support Campbell at the time was his boss at Lick Observatory. However, slowly Campbell's view gained support. Fifteen years later, Huggins even came to accept it. By 1938, nearly all astronomers had. Still, Campbell complained about the few who had not accepted it. While he had been the head of observatories and the president of universities, that this early finding of his was not universally accepted galled him.

Campbell backed up his findings on the Martian atmosphere and Martian water with the findings he had heard the Irish physicist George Johnstone Stoney (1826-1911) had reached. Stoney calculated that the velocities of water and our air would be greater than the escape velocity on Mars and thus Mars would have little of either. He had such ideas in the 1860s but the world did not hear about them until 1893, and he did not publish his paper on them until 1898. When he did, others disputed them. Ultimately, however, Stoney's view also triumphed.

Where did the pro-Canal and anti-Canal people stand? You would expect the pro-Canal people to be less favorable toward Stoney and Campbell. Schiaparelli was. He believed there were both oceans and Canals on Mars, even though it was a problem that Canals were observed on the oceans.

On the other hand, Lowell was one of the Canal people who was willing to meet Campbell and Stoney part way. He figured out that if air was low, it would not be a problem. He felt 'men' who needed one-seventh the air could easily have evolved. In fact, that Mars had less water than Earth actually went beyond not being problem; it actually gave a rationale for why the Martians had built the Canals, to get water for crops. Mars was an old planet that was cold and dry, and crops could not be cultivated without the Canals. The green areas were not oceans but vegetation.

Of course, Lowell had to prove that Mars had some water. Sure enough, in 1908, an astronomer of his, Vesto Slipher, saw on his spectroscope in the red area a spectral line he found indicative of water. However, when Campbell and others looked, they saw nothing significant.

Ironically, while Lowell believed there was a little water and air on Mars, opponents of the Canals often believed there was plenty of air and water there. In fact, the prominent people in the debate believed this, and were anti-Campbell and -Stoney as well as anti-Canal. Maunder, though he opposed the concept of intelligent life on Mars, stood steadfastly for plenty of air and water there. At least, he did during the Canal controversy. He stood firm even though he found some aspects of Mars better explained by little air or water. The reason is that he had taken the spectroscopic readings; and, as far as he was concerned, Huggins' original findings were correct. Antioniadi went farther, during the Canal controversy, because he only doubted the existence of the Canals. He had no misgivings that Mars had ample air and water, and harbored intelligent life.

There was an extremely prominent astronomer who opposed both the Canals and air and water on Mars, however, Simon Newcomb (1835-1909). His view was a double threat to Lowell. When Newcomb was asked to write the Encyclopedia Britannica article on "Mars," Lowell strong armed Newcomb and the Britannica to allow a footnote rejoinder hostile to Newcomb's Mars.

In another way, the Canal Theory could be said to have succeeded. It was wildly popular among the public. Astronomers, as all professionals, have not cottoned to individuals appealing to the public on debates inside the profession. What made the offense worse is that Lowell's view had such great appeal. In a book review, Campbell hit the mark, with distaste:

"In my opinion, [Lowell] has taken the most popular side of the most popular scientific question afloat."

Lowell was good at appealing to the public too. He wrote articles and books that the public found great inspiration in. That he was multi-lingual meant that his gospel was not restricted to England or America. He was particularly popular in France, even among astronomers.

If Lowell could not inspire astronomers generally, he certainly inspired novelists. Although they might not mention the Canals, they would mention an old Mars, more scientifically advanced and often with a dearth of water and air. These ideas mostly likely came by way of Lowell. H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein wrote about such a Mars. These ideas appeared in novels even in the 1960s. Heinlein published Stranger in a Strange Land in1961, and many people even then were ready believe that his ideas reflected true science. As I said, the idea was not absolutely discredited among the public, or a few astronomers, until Mariner IV in 1965.

While this put an end to the popularity of an old Mars, it may not have staunched the influence of these novels. Often they inspired later ideas. Some people believe that Kurd Lasswitz did. This German writer wrote a novel about Martians invading Earth at the same time in the late 1890s as Wells did. However, his Martians were much more benevolent and much more successful. One belief is that this book inspired Arthur Clarke's Childhood's End (1953). In a past article in Challenger, I suggest Wells' hyper-rational Martians inspired the Alien Greys of the post '70s flying saucer abductions.

People like to pooh pooh such emotional, artistic and subconscious influences as being completely unimportant. Of course, in many ways, the public's view of things often has a greater importance in our lives than the facts of science. It certainly does for the public and our psyche. So, in a way, you could say that the Canal advocates succeeded past their wildest dreams.


I took most of this from Michael J. Crowe, The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750 -1900 (1999), pp480-545.


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