“life On Mars Is Almost Certain!”


EXPLORATION HAS A way of destroying as much knowledge and as many features as it reveals. At the first approach of an impartial observer, bodies of water have evaporated into thin air, navigable passages have healed up without a scar, and great lands firmly fixed on the map have sunk beneath the waves, carrying whole species of beings down with them. Exploration claimed new victims in the 1960s, when the Mariner space probes gave the world its first close view of the surface of the planet Mars. Hopes had run high. Ever since the 1890s, popular imagination, fueled by the work of the American astronomer Percival Lowell, had populated the red planet with an advanced race of beings. The Mariner pictures showed no such signs of civilization. The surface they revealed was barren, cratered, and, to all appearances, lifeless.

Lowell’s theory, to be sure, was not altogether original when it appeared. The belief in life on other worlds had a respectable American tradition, derived from a much older European one. During the Enlightenment the habitation of other planets was taken for granted. God, the master craftsman, would not have wasted matter building other worlds if He had not intended to populate them. On the same grounds Hugh Williamson, a scientist and signer of the Constitution, argued that comets, too, might carry intelligent life. In 1824 Eliphalet Nott, president of Union College, painted for his students a picture of extraterrestrial beings, “whose acuter vision or more powerful glasses enable them to look down on us, regardful of our progress … and impatiently waiting for the time when our improved instruments shall enable us to recognize their signals.” After the 1850s the belief began to wane, in part due to the influence of the English theologian and scientist William Whewell, who argued that man was clearly “uniquely favored among all God’s creatures.”

The seeds for a revival were sown in 1877, a year that brought Mars exceptionally near to Earth. Mars is best observed from Earth when it is in opposition—that is, when it and the Sun are on opposite sides of our planet. This occurs at intervals of slightly more than two years; the most favorable oppositions, when Mars is closest to Earth, occur approximately every fifteen years. The year 1877 brought one of the latter kind. In the United States, Asaph Hall took advantage of it to discover the two tiny moons of Mars, to which he gave the names Phobos and Deimos. In Italy the astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli turned his attention to the surface of the red planet. Earlier observers had seen and mapped Martian features but none had seen what Schiaparelli now saw: a network of fine, often straight lines patterned across the surface. As they seemed to connect the dark areas (assumed at the time to be seas), Schiaparelli called them canali , Italian for “channels,” and gave them names from classical antiquity.

At the next two oppositions Schiaparelli saw more lines, some of them single, others seeming to be double channels. The initial response to his reports was one of skepticism. But soon some astronomers began to see the lines as well, though others did not and publicly doubted the channels’ existence.

The canali , which became known in English as “canals,” furnished grist for debate. The choice of “canals” rather than “channels” reflected the belief that the lines might be artificial in origin. While Schiaparelli himself refused to speculate, there were many who argued that such an ordered pattern could not have been produced naturally. A French astronomer, Camille Flammarion, did a great deal to popularize the idea of a vast Martian system of artificial waterways. The visible lines, he said, were not only the canals themselves but also the wide bands of vegetation being grown along their banks. Flammarion and his followers fixed a new idea of Mars in the public mind: a planet inhabited by an advanced civilization, wise and peaceful, prolonging existence and fending off the encroaching deserts by huge works of engineering.

The favorable opposition of 1892 was followed in two years by one almost as good. It was then that Percival Lowell entered the picture. Born in 1855 into the famous Boston family, Lowell had already completed two careers—one in business and one as a traveler and writer in the Far East—before returning to his old interest of astronomy. He left Japan in 1893 and came back to America, burning with eagerness to build an observatory and carry on the work begun by the aging Schiaparelli. When Mars began to reach opposition in the summer of 1894, Lowell made his first careful observations of the planet from his new facility, built in Flagstaff, Arizona Territory, to take advantage of the clear, dry air.