On Life on Mars and Human Imagination

| May 20, 2013 | 0 Comments

After Copernicus released his famous work On the Revolutions of The Heavenly Spheres in the first half of the 16th century, more and more people started believing in the heliocentric theory. Almost a century later the great Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei started observing the endless night skies with his newly built telescope. Galileo was a great fan of Copernicus’ ideas, and his telescope was a great tool to check them practically. Interestingly, after many long nights of observations, Galileo not only confirmed Copernicus’ ideas, but also made a great discovery himself. Simply by observing the surfaces of planets Mars and Venus he directly confirmed that some of the shiny dots in the night skies were not stars but actually planets — a revolutionary idea back in those days. So naturally, people started questioning  the possibility of life on other planets. This in turn lead to very imaginative theories about the life on our neighboring planets.

During the later centuries, search of life on other planets became one of the great aims of astronomers. As the telescopes were getting more sophisticated, more theories, or perhaps we should say fantasies, were created about the of live on other planets. In particular, the success of astronomy sparked an ever-growing interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life on Mars among. Even the famous scientists such as the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huyghens and the French mathematician Jean Henri Lambert shared a belief that other planets and even comets had to inhabit some sort of life forms.  However, the real craze among the society began at the second half of the 19th century.

Drawings of the canals of Mars

The 19th century was a truly great time for science. Biology and physics were developed to a highly sophisticated level. New equipment including powerful telescopes and microscopes led to a fairly good understanding of both astronomy and biology. Darwin’s ideas of evolution led to a better understanding of the development of life forms. Naturally, all these scientific advancements led to an even bigger interest in the search of life on other planets. And thus the telescopes were firstly aimed towards the nearest planets — Mars and Venus.

Even back at the 17th century astronomers knew that Mars had polar caps, which were easily noticeable on the red surface of the planet. Interestingly, those polar caps could melt during the seasonal variations, which made them look like greenish spots on the surface of Mars. All of this lead to a belief that there was either water or some sort of vegetation covering the vast areas of the surface of the red planet. Of course, if there was water or vegetation, then there was a big chance of more sophisticated life forms either. Unfortunately, the telescopes were still not powerful enough to obtain any direct proof of life of life on Mars. That’s were the imagination kicked in.

In 1888 Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, during the opposition of Mars, made a series of drawings of the surface of Mars according to his observations. In these drawings he displayed a series of almost straight lines on the surface of the red planet. The fun part is that his works were mistranslated and the lines were called canals in the translation (which means artificial water ways rather than natural water ways in English and French). As you might guess, this sparkled  the imagination of the society all around the world. In the following months people all around the world were discussing Martians and how smart they must be — after all they had special canals, which supplied water from the polar caps to the whole planet. And since the belief of life on Mars was shared not only by laymen by serious scientists as well, a number of mind-blowing suggestions of how to communicate with Martians followed. As an example,  some scientists had an idea to create huge symbols on the surface on North Pole to communicate with the aliens.

A map of Mars canals 

Of course now, after more than a hundred years, it’s clear that there are no canals on Mars. These canals were just a co-creation of human imagination and primitive equipment of the 19th century astronomers. The lines, which appeared as canals were only curvy shapes of the surface of the planet Mars. However, one has to agree that it’s a remarkable creation of our imagination — it has sparked an ever-lasting interest in science fiction and the search for the extraterrestrial life. Thus we have to thank the imagination of the 19th century people, as it has definitely played a role in the great support for the modern projects that search the skies for life, such as SETI.





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