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“life On Mars Is Almost Certain!”
…And what’s more, the planet’s highly civilized inhabitants live together in perfect harmony. So argued an eminent astronomer named Percival Lowell, and for decades tens of thousands of Americans believed him.
February/March 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 2
Lowell, gifted with keen eyesight (and, some said, with a lively imagination as well), had no trouble seeing the network of canali . During the summer and autumn of 1894 he began mapping and naming new lines, a project that would occupy him until his death in 1916. During that time the number of lines recorded would increase to more than seven hundred. Unlike Schiaparelli, Lowell did not confine himself to simple observation. Though he admired the Italian greatly, referring to him as the “Columbus of a new planetary world,” he believed that “as with Columbus, too, the full import of his great discovery lay hid even to him.” Convinced that the ordered pattern of the canals could only be the work of intelligent beings, Lowell made it his mission to carry this news to his fellow scientists and to the public.
Lowell gave a series of public lectures in Boston early in 1895, expounding his views on Martian life. He then wrote a series of four articles on the same topic for the Atlantic Monthly ; these articles, with additional material, appeared at the end of the year as a book titled Mars . As a biographer has noted, Lowell’s views underwent virtually no change over the years; the arguments given in Mars are not much different from those the astronomer would present in Mars and Its Canals (1906) or Mars as the Abode of Life (1908). Criticism from other scientists, which was abundant, failed to sway Lowell in the slightest.
His major argument stemmed from the pattern of the canal lines. Their regularity and straightness, so unlike what nature would produce, proclaimed the work of intelligent beings. Their purpose, irrigation, was indicated by the phenomenon of the “wave of darkening,” a change in color, which swept down along the canals from the poles toward the equator with the coming of spring. Lowell took this darkening to be the growth of crops watered by melting ice and snow from the polar caps. The orderly course of planetary evolution had made such an irrigation system necessary. Mars, being “older” than Earth, had lost its seas through evaporation (a point on which most astronomers agreed). A small amount of water remained, locked in the polar caps and released for use only during seasonal melting. An older planet would also have more highly developed inhabitants. Only such beings could have conceived and built the vast canal network, upon which their very survival depended in their parched world. “With them,” Lowell suggested, scientific instruments thought modern on Earth were “things of a bygone past, preserved with veneration in museums as relics of … the simple childhood of the race.”
Within the scientific community these speculations, won, at best, a chilly reception. While the Flagstaff observatory unquestionably turned out excellent work in other areas, from the start all its efforts tended to be eclipsed by the “Mars furor.” The polar caps, many astronomers alleged, were made of frozen carbon dioxide, not of the water essential to irrigation (a point vigorously disputed by Lowell). Others insisted that the atmosphere was too thin and the temperatures too low to support life (another point of bitter debate). The Englishman Alfred Russel Wallace, who, with Charles Darwin, had announced the theory of evolution in 1858, published an effective antiLowell book in 1907 called Is Mars Habitable? Raising many valid objections and some more dubious ones, Wallace sharply attacked the American astronomer’s “wholly unsupported speculation,” concluding that Mars “is absolutely UNINHABITABLE .”
The Harvard astronomer W. H. Pickering put forward a variety of alternative explanations for the canals. Pickering, who had been Lowell’s assistant at Flagstaff in 1894, soon emerged as his leading opponent in the popular press. In 1902 he wrote an article titled “The Canals in the Moon.” There were, said Pickering, observable bands of vegetation in craters on the lunar surface, resembling the Martian pattern; but surely no one would claim that they were the work of intelligent beings? Later he would suggest that the Martian canals were long cracks in the planet’s surface, lined with plant growth—or that the lines simply did not exist, save as chance markings organized into patterns by the eye of the viewer. This last idea soon became one of the main arguments against the canal theory.
Lowell found the coolness of other scientists annoying. He began to ascribe it to the vanity of the human race, to an unwillingness to admit the existence of superior beings in the universe. His opponents were like “Crusoe, who grows pale at the sight of footprints not his own.” Panic drove them to seize upon any alternative hypothesis, “no matter how improbable or even palpably absurd it be.” Nonsense, retorted Pickering. Astronomers would welcome “trustworthy evidence” of Martian life, “not only with pleasure, but with wild enthusiasm.”