Canals on Mars — Can you Imagine?

While making a point about intelligence in his post titled What Smartness Means, Michael Anissomov mentions Mesosomes:

Credit: Public Domain.

The story goes: Mesosomes were discovered in the 1960s and biologists thought that they “play[ed] a role in cell wall formation during cell division and/or chromosome replication and distribution and/or electron transfer systems of respiration. […] They act as an anchor to bind and pull apart daughter chromosomes during cell division.”

Problem is, further research showed that mesosomes were actually artifacts caused by the process used with electron microscopy — humans were inadvertently creating them. So much for the original research.

This reminded me of something I’ve read about a few years ago – possibly in Isaac Asimov’s autobiography – about the “canals” on Mars.

For a time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was believed that there were canals on Mars. These were a network of long straight lines that appeared in drawings of the planet Mars in the equatorial regions from 60° N. to 60° S. Lat., first observed by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli during the opposition of 1877, and confirmed by later observers. Schiaparelli called these canali, which was translated into English as “canals” [though “channels” would have been more accurate]. The Irish astronomer Charles E. Burton made some of the earliest drawings of straight-line features on Mars, although his drawings did not match Schiaparelli’s.

Many astronomers couldn’t even see these lines, and most of them didn’t jump to the conclusion that they were a sign of an alien intelligence. But some, including amateur astronomer Percival Lowell, were convinced that they were a sign of an intelligence civilization, and many in the general public jumped to those conclusions too.

Here are some drawings of the “canals”:

Mars Canals #1
Map of Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli.

Here are striking drawings by Percival Lowell (the first kind of looks like giant spiders):

Mars Canals #2
Martian channels depicted by Percival Lowell.

Mars Canals #3

I can only imagine what it must have been to see these at the time (late 19th century, early 20th). Nowadays we’re used to knowing that we’re alone in our corner of space (and possibly in more than our corner, read these: one, two), but back then it must have made the imagination run wild. Imagine thinking that we’ve discovered signs of an advanced civilization on a nearby planet. Seriously, take a second to sit back and think about it. Must’ve been the ultimate curiosity-high!

But what did these “canals” turn out to be?

An optical illusion.

In one famous if somewhat casual experiment, a diagram of Mars featuring all of its generally agreed-upon features, but excluding the canals, was tacked up in front of a roomful of schoolchildren, who were asked to copy it. The kids in front, who could see the map clearly, reproduced it accurately. But the kids in the back, to whom many of the fine details on the map were simply a blur, tended to come up with maps that had canal-like lines connecting the smaller landmarks. From this some concluded that the Martian canals were an optical illusion, the result of the psychological tendency to connect indistinct features into some sort of comprehensible whole. Confirming this idea was the fact that on those few occasions when the view of Mars was exceptionally clear, the canals could not be seen.

NASA - Mariner 4
Mariner 4. Credit: NASA, Public Domain.

NASA - Mariner 9
Mariner 9. Credit: NASA, Public Domain.

It was settled for good by NASA when in 1965 the Mariner 4 probe flew by Mars and sent back pictures, and in 1971 when Mariner 9 mapped the Martian surface. No “canals” to be found.

These days our best bet to have a chat with an alien intelligence is to create it.


One Response to “Canals on Mars — Can you Imagine?”

  1. Space Sheepz » Canals on Mars — What did they turn out to be? Says:

    […] read more | digg story […]

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