How Canals On Mars Lead To Fears That We Would Be Attacked By Hostile Martians!

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Okay this may be a textbook example of how to start a rumor that captures and then terrorizes the world. It all began with a telescope.

In 1877 by Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli turned his telescope to

the sky and bada-bing-badaboom he discovered straight lines that ultimately sparked rumors of possible life on Mars due to an error in translation. Schiaparelli, an Italian astronomer and senator, called the peculiar markings he observed on Mars in 1877 canali. The word, erroneously translated into English as “canals” instead of “channels,” led to widespread speculation over whether the “canals” were constructed by intelligent beings. Canali is the Italian word for channels, but it was mistranslated to mean canals—defined as man-made waterways and consequently implying the presence of life on mars

Percival Lowell 1900s2.jpg
Percival Lowell during the early-20th century

Then astronomer Percival Lowell who was inspired by astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s description of “canali” on Mars made intricate drawings of what he took to be canals based on his own observations he made at his observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Thanks to this mistranslation, Lowell began studying Mars to find proof of intelligent life.

1877 map of Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli Public Domain

Lowell’s theories influenced the young English writer H.G. Wells, who in 1898 published The War of the Worlds. In this novel, Wells created an invasion of Earth by deadly aliens from Mars and launched a whole new genre of alien science fiction.

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In science fiction, use of the phrase “little green men” dates back to the 1940s, with the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction tracing the first usage to the story “Mayaya’s Little Green Men” (Weird Tales, 1946) by Harold Lawlor

The War of the Worlds cover
The War of the Worlds

In 1911, “A Princess of Mars”, the first of eleven science fiction novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was published. Burroughs used Schiaparelli’s names for regions on the planet and gave his Martians green skin.

On Halloween in 1938, Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater on the Air broadcast a radio version of The War of the Worlds. The story, presented as a series of “live” news bulletins, panicked thousands of listeners who believed that America was being attacked by hostile Martians.

Most experienced astronomers never saw the Martian “canals” and for a good reason. We now know that they never existed! The network of crisscrossing lines covering the surface of Mars was only a product of the human tendency to see patterns, even when patterns do not exist. When looking at a faint group of dark smudges, the eye tends to connect them with straight lines. This has been demonstrated by many laboratory and field experiments.

Percival Lowell’s quest kept his attention for the rest of his life. He founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and formed the beginning of the effort that led to the discovery of Pluto 14 years after his death.

Canals drawn by Percival Lowell

Percival Lowell lived and worked at the observatory for the remainder of his life. He continued his work observing Mars and using his observatory (along with a crew of dedicated observers and astronomers) until his death in 1916.

Lowell’s legacy continues as Lowell Observatory enters its second century of service to astronomy. Over the years, the facilities have been used for moon mapping for the NASA Apollo program, studies of rings around Uranus, observations of the atmosphere of Pluto, and hosts of other research programs.