Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Did E M Antoniadi trounce extra terrestrial life in the 1920's?


Eugene Antoniadi

Off to the British Library in St Pancras Thurs and Fri this week to solve a puzzle in the history of science: Did E M Antoniadi trounce the canals of Mars so thoroughly in the 1920’s that from 1920 to 1960 no scientist could express an interest in extra terrestrial life without attracting ridicule? This is often asserted. 

And I've tussled with it before.

Antoniadi published a book in 1930 in French La Plan├Ęte Mars giving his observations and the conclusions he drew from them, which amongst other things put paid to the canals. Or so it's always said.

Strangely the book seems not to have been translated in English till 1975 (by Patrick Moore). I've put in a request for the translation which I'll see on Thursday. 

I have a review (in English) of the book from Nature, January 1931.  The reviewer seems to accept that the canals are fictitious. But he says that Antoniadi has revealed “with great clearness that, despite its shortage of water, Mars is by no means as yet a dead world.”  

The reviewer mentions “the drift of clouds and other manifestations of Martian meteorology” as well as seasonal changes in colour and other occasional changes, all of which indicate that “Mars is still very much alive and full of interest for the student of its surface and physical state”.   The reviewer doesn’t explicitly attribute this to vegetation.  Which is, of course, we now know, non-existent. But is that what he's getting at?  In any event, he doesn’t seem to be pouring cold water on the notion that life could exist there.

A Mars map from Antoniadi's "canal period"
Eagerly anticipating seeing Antoniadi’s book on Thursday!   And maybe more contemporary reviews.

I shall try to locate a Mars expert who can tell me whether, in fact, these seasonal changes are real. I do know that Mars is subject to dusts storms, which would account for the drift of clouds.  It’s also the case that the ice caps advance and retreat with the seasons, so far as I know.

Early in his observing career, Antoniadi was a big believer and prolific observer of canals on Mars. But now he is now remembered for debunking them.

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