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,
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
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
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),