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Backyard Astronomy: Mommy, where did Martians come from? (08-18-2003)

By Cheryl Haimann

If you have had any exposure to the news media in the last month, you've probably heard that Mars is making its closest pass to Earth in almost 60,000 years this month. Amateur astronomers have been following the planet grow larger for several months, hoping to see some of the features that are more inscrutable when the planet is more distant.

But if you have had any exposure to any media in your entire life, you know that we have a fascination with Mars that, sometimes, transcends science. What is it about Mars that resonates with us?

The name Mars, of course, is the Roman name for the god known as Ares in Greek. Ares, the god of war, was the son of Zeus and Hera, and he was seated with the other major gods on Mount Olympus. The Greco-Roman culture, though, was not the only one to associate the red planet with anger and conflict. Six millenia ago, the Chaldeans named the planet Nargel, after their god of battle and the dead. The ancient Persian called it the Celestial Warrior.

The earliest telescopic views of Mars revealed dark and light spots on the surface. In the same way that dark spots on the moon are called "mare" or "sea" (for example, Sea of Tranquility or Mare Tranquillitatis), dark spots on Mars were also named as if they were bodies of water. It was only natural, then, when Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed in 1877 what appeared to be straight lines on the planet's surface, that he called them "canali" - the Italian word for the narrow, natural waterways we call channels. Other observers, however, saw patchy streaks rather than straight lines.

Seventeen years later, a wealthy Bostonian name Percival Lowell built an observatory in Arizona, from which he observed the same lines Schiaparelli had reported. Lowell made one error, though. Since straight lines did not exist in nature, he translated "canali" as "canals," an artificially-created construction.

In an attempt to explain these canals, Lowell correctly surmised that a small planet would cool and dry faster more quickly than a large planet. But in a Darwinian leap of faith, he assumed that life had developed on Mars and adapted to the colder climate. The dark patches, Lowell concluded, were vegetation, and the canals had been built by the inhabitants to bring water from the polar ice caps to the warmer equatorial region where most of the population resided.

Unfortunately for Lowell, within a few years science was shooting holes in his theories. Improved spectrometer readings showed that the Martian environment was harsher than had been previously thought, making it much more unlikely that life had developed there. Advances in astrophotography, first earthbound and later from space, revealed no trace of the canals or cities.

Nonetheless, the thought that there might be intelligent life on other worlds captured the popular imagination, and created an entire sub-genre of science fiction reaching back as far as Edgar Rice Burrough's Barsoom stories in the 1920s. As Mars science developed, though, the focus of Mars literature shifted from "there are already creatures there" to "we could live there." Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars trilogy from the 1990s and the 2000 movie "Red Planet" are examples of the current approach to Mars fiction.

So science has settled the question of Martians once and for all, right? Think again. When Viking 1surveyed Mars in 1976, one of the photos released by NASA identified a "face-like" structure on the surface of Mars. (NASA photos of the "face" are available at http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2001/ast24may_1.htm) Conspiracy theorists seized upon this grainy digital image as proof of intelligent life on Mars. Furthermore, they claimed, NASA's denials of such were proof of a cover-up. While a more effective cover-up might have been not to release the photo, later images from different angles and with more advanced technology show that the "face"is an optical illusion created by shadows on a wind-eroded plateau or hill.
Article © Cheryl Haimann. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-04-16
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