How about those canals on Mars?
I was just wondering how widespread the belief in their existence was. A 2011 article by Richard Milner in Astrobiology Magazine gives some background.
About 120 years ago, however, at least one prominent astronomer was convinced that Mars not only supported life, but was home to an advanced civilization. Martians, the theory went, had built an extensive network of canals to draw water down from supposed icecaps at the Red Planet’s poles to irrigate a world that was drying out.
Imagine really believing there were “Martians” on another planet. It’s not a particularly outlandish belief given the available information…but it seems like quite a dramatic belief.
Martian canals as depicted by Percival Lowell.
Credit: Public domain
These immense illusory earthworks (Marsworks?) had been studied in detail by one of the greatest astronomers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the wealthy and socially prominent Percival Lowell.
In his day, Lowell was far and away the most influential popularizer of planetary science in America. His widely read books included “Mars” (1895), “Mars and Its Canals” (1906), and “Mars As the Abode of Life” (1908).
Lowell was not the first to believe he saw vast canals on Mars. That distinction belongs to the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who in 1877 reported the appearance of certain long, thin lines he called canali, meaning channels in Italian. But he stopped short of attributing them to the work of intelligent Martians.
Channels can just happen. Canals, not so much.
Lowell carried the matter much further. Captivated by these sketchily observed — and ultimately nonexistent — phenomena, Lowell spent many years attempting to elucidate and theorize about them. The lines, he thought, must “run for thousands of miles in an unswerving direction, as far relatively as from London to Bombay, and as far actually as from Boston to San Francisco.”
He thought the Red Planet must once have been covered by lush greenery, but was now desiccated; the “canals” were an admirable attempt by intelligent and cooperative beings to save their home planet. [5 Bold Claims of Alien Life]
The Canals of Mars became one of the most intense and wrongheaded obsessions in the history of science, capturing the popular imagination through dozens of newspaper and magazine articles, as well as such classic science fiction as “The Princess of Mars,” a pulp classic by Edgar Rice Burroughs…
With us it’s Roswell and alien abductions.