- Historic Sites
“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
The resemblance lies, though, entirely in the physical geography of Barsoom (as the beings on Burroughs’s Mars name their planet). The vast deserts and dry sea beds all bear witness to the desiccation which forced the inhabitants to their great feat of engineering. Capt. John Carter, mysteriously transported from post-Civil War America to Barsoom, finds the so-called Martian canals to be water-ways lined by wide ribbons of irrigated land stretching from pole to pole.
Lowell’s theory did not die with him; only with the three Mariner probes were speculations finally laid to rest.
The social structure of this planet could not be more different from that postulated by Lowell or Ward. Only one Martian in a thousand, Carter finds, dies a natural death. The social and racial integration Ward had ascribed to Mars is lacking, for there are several distinct groups: the red Martians, the most advanced and noble; the violent, treacherous green men; and yellow and black races as well, all incessantly at war.
BURROUGHS WROTE numerous sequels, which became much wilder in plot and imagination, but he maintained that his portrait of Mars was faithful to the spirit of life on the red planet. In the mid-1920s he informed a newspaper that the Martians were “nomadic, war-like, predatory.” “The constant battle for survival,” he continued, “has rendered the Martian merciless almost to cruelty.”
In later years such headlines as “Farewell to Martians,” announcing new discoveries at odds with Lowell’s beliefs, appeared regularly. Nevertheless, in the popular mind, and in the minds of some astronomers as well, the canal theory remained something to be taken seriously, and every close opposition brought a new rash of speculation.
The three unmanned Mariner probes of 1965, 1969, and 1971, flying past and around Mars, sent back pictures that finally demolished the Lowell theory and, at the same time, forced scientists to change much of their thinking about the planet. The surface revealed by the Mariner probes and by the later Viking landings on Mars was indeed dry, but there was no sign to the cameras of intelligent beings or of an irrigation network—or even of vegetation. And certainly the surface was not what Lowell and Ward had proclaimed it to be: smooth and flat, with all irregularities worn or carved away by technologically advanced inhabitants. Instead there were craters, enormous canyons, and huge meandering depressions resembling dry riverbeds probably produced long ago by freely running water. It is remotely conceivable that some basic form of life does exist on Mars, as yet undetected; but the search for intelligent beings has moved on to other frontiers (though unhampered today by the old assumption that conditions must be Earthlike for life to exist).
It is difficult today to understand how so much speculation could be generated by a geometric pattern of lines seen at a distance of millions of miles. Like a Rorschach blot, the canals called forth from each observer the visions fitting his beliefs: Lowell’s intellectual hierarchy, Ward’s social Utopia, Howells’s socialists, Cowan’s Christians, and Burroughs’s vivid warriors all owe as much to the writer’s personality as to anything seen through a telescope. It was generally agreed that the Martians were of a higher order than we are; hence each person’s vision of the ideal, often of himself, became his vision of the Martian. In the sixth century B.C. , Xenophanes observed that men picture gods in their own image, but that if horses had hands, they would draw gods who looked like horses.
Nonetheless, it was the most generally appealing of these personal views that would be embraced by the public in general. In the years before World War I this was undoubtedly the one offered by Lowell himself. It was comforting to look at Mars and read there the progress of man, moving away from war, toward cooperation. The enthusiasm people felt for Lowell’s work in the early 1900s is not difficult to understand. Years before Lincoln Steffens, they had seen the future, and it worked.