canals of Mars
I have been watching and drawing the surface of Mars. It is wonderfully full of detail. There is certainly no question about there being mountains and plateaus. To save my soul I can't believe in the canals as Schiaparelli draws them. I see details where he has drawn none. I see details where some of his canals are, but they are not straight lines at all. When best seen these details are very irregular and broken up ... I verily believe ... that the canals ... are a fallacy and that they will so be proved before many favorable oppositions are past.Barnard's skeptical stance represented the majority position of professionals throughout the period of the canal debate. Yet, enough reputable astronomers did verify Schiaparelli's canali to keep the controversy alive. Moreover, such was Schiaparelli's reputation as a skilled observer that, even among opponents, his claims concerning the mysterious lines were treated with respect and Mars became the subject of intense scrutiny at the world's leading observatories.
Several matters needed resolving, both intellectually and optically. First was the question of whether there really were lines on Mars at all. Many astronomers doubted it, suspecting they were an illusion, but verification of Schiaparelli's markings came, in 1886, from Perrotin and Thollon at Nice and Wilson in Cincinnati.
[I]t would be wrong to deny that [Mars] could be inhabited by human species whose intelligence and methods of action could be far superior to our own. Neither can we deny that they could have straightened the original rivers and built a system of canals with the idea of producing a planet-wide circulation system.Even Flammarion's enthusiasm, however, paled beside that of Lowell who, from 1894 to his death in 1916, painted a picture of an extant martian civilization infinitely more alluring than the prosaic (yet more accurate) portrayals by mainstream science (see life on Mars).
Lowell managed to capture the mood of the age. By the closing decades of the 19th century, through a bombardment of extraordinary fact and fiction (see Verne, Jules), people had become habitualized to high-speed technological progress and increasingly ambitious civil engineering schemes. So the suggestion that beings on another world, more evolved than mankind, might be able to carry out projects on a planet-wide scale seemed perfectly credible. What humans could do, perhaps the Martians, older and wiser, could do bigger and better. Regarding transport systems, for instance, the year 1869 saw not only the term canali first applied (by Secchi) to a feature on Mars, but also the opening of the Suez Canal and the completion of the first rail-track linking the East and West coasts of the United States. Ordinary folk were primed ready to believe in advanced Martians, so that when Lowell speculated about a canal-building super-race, he found an eager and sympathetic audience.
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