Monday, June 21, 2010

The canals of Mars and the extraterrestrial life question

Registered today as a reader at the British Library in St Pancras. Huge excitement. In the footsteps of Karl Marx. But not the same reading room of course.

There’s a puzzling episode in the history of science that I intend to get to the bottom of. Paul Davies is fond of saying that when he was an undergraduate in the 1960’s you couldn’t express an interest in extraterrestrial life and expect to be taken seriously as a scientist. You might as well have expressed an interest in fairies. Yet from the 18th century at least, and possibly since ancient times, up to about 1920, extraterrestrial life was most definitely part of the scientific debate.

From 1920 to 1960 however – taboo. Several witnesses attest to this.

A principle reason given for this is the canals of Mars. The American amateur astronomer Percival Lowell popularised them in the late 19th century, until the Greek astronomer Antoniadi debunked them utterly in 1920, and after that anyone who had expressed interest in extraterrestrial life was too embarrassed to pipe up.

But there’s an alternative narrative about the (non-existent as we now know) canals of Mars, namely that they were not in fact debunked until 1965, when Mariner IV sent back close-up photos of Mars.

If this version is true, Antoniadi can’t have debunked them in 1920. And the non-existence of the canals can’t be a reason for the 40-year taboo.

An extremely helpful librarian in the BL today printed me off a letter in Nature, September 25, 1965. It’s headed “Photographs of Mars taken by Mariner IV.”  Gilbert Fielder of University of London Observatory, says

“The canals drawn on the older maps of Mars are not evident on those Mariner IV frames that might have registered them, but I have found a correlation between the trends of the recently photographed martian lineaments and the direction of the mapped canals.”

So here’s one scientist at least who in 1965 continued to regard the canals as an open question.

More to follow, and perhaps in due course a lecture to Cork Astronomy Club.

1 comment:

  1. I look forward to a conclusion to this conundrum!