Saturday, November 29, 2003

The Red Planet

If it pertains to Mars, it's blogged at Martian Soil. Perhaps the only thing I don't see mentioned there is why we are obsessed with Mars in the first place.

In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli documented channels on the surface of Mars. The Italian word for 'channels' is 'canali', which was interpreted in English-speaking cultures as 'canals'. To the Victorian mindset, for obvious historical reasons (such as the industrial revolution, and empire building on the foundations of the Renaissance), the presence of canals implied the presence of canal builders.

Dr. David Schroeder of Catawba College has been studying Victorian ideas about Mars:

Others expounded on Schiaparelli's discovery during the late 1800s and the early 1900s, including American astronomer Percival Lowell. Lowell, in his publication, 'Mars and Its Canals,' propagated the idea that Mars was inhabited by creatures of advanced intelligence who had used their engineering skills to create gigantic canal networks which captured, channeled and carried water from Mars polar caps to irrigate crops located along the canals. Mars, Lowell contended, was far older than Earth and was practically a desert planet from which most water had escaped.

"For his concept of the canals on Mars to work," Schroeder says, "one had to adopt a utopian view of that planet. All the Martians were politically unified, all spoke the same language, shared the same culture and could collaborate on projects of this magnitude. Many saw this as the future of Earth." Lowell's views became popular and sparked debates that have lasted more than a century.

It's pretty interesting that the general cultural fascination with the Red Planet stemmed from a misunderstanding, an error in translation. Of course, the more I study, the more I learn that this is often the way ideas propagate... a meme that might die out if reliant only on its inherent truths may be much more viable if some of those truths are altered to fit the tastes of the target audience.