Science  /  Discovery

Alien Aqueducts: The Maps of Martian Canals

Observing the visible features of Martian landscapes, Giovanni Schiaparelli began seeing things almost immediately.

Long before David Bowie asked if there was life on Mars, a wealthy American astronomer arrived on a clear-cut answer: yes, and it built canals.

The groundwork for this theory was laid in 1877, when Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli began mapping the planet's surface from the Brera Observatory in Milan, where he served as director. Thanks to a slight abnormality in the Merz refractor telescope installed three years earlier, known as overcorrected chromatic aberration, his equipment was unintentionally calibrated for viewing the Red Planet. And then the stars, as it were, further aligned: he timed his observation with a biannual cosmic pattern, an event known as opposition, when Mars moves closest to the Earth. Schiaparelli began seeing things almost immediately --- shapes that resembled dim lines, crisscrossing the extraterrestrial desert.

Despite being colorblind, there was no question of the observer's integrity. Like the telescope, Schiaparelli had honed his body to be a superior astronomical instrument. He abstained from "everything which could affect the nervous system, from narcotics to alcohol, and especially from the abuse of coffee, which [he] found to be exceedingly prejudicial to the accuracy of observation." With clear eyes, Schiaparelli saw intoxicating landscapes and named the linear features canali: a word that, in Italian, can stand for both natural, geological trenches and manufactured channels. Other notable astronomers, such as Henri Joseph Perrotin and Louis Thollon, soon saw them too.

Historians offer different theories for what happened next. Some think alien life was found in translation, as, unlike canali, the English "canals" primarily conjures trenches dug by intelligent life. Others credit the recent completion of the Suez Canal (in 1869) for priming the popular imagination with canaliform desires. And still others believe that it is a question of Gestalt psychology, with Mars serving as an interplanetary Rorschach test on which to project one of our species' oldest questions: are we truly alone?

Schiaparelli's research was championed by one astronomer in particular: Percival Lowell, brother of the Imagist poet Amy Lowell. A polymath and Boston Brahmin, as labelled by his biographer David Strauss, Lowell led the kind of life only possible for a certain class of individual in the nineteenth century. He spent his thirties in East Asia, writing books with titles like The Soul of the Far East (1888) and Occult Japan (1895), which includes a chapter on demonic possession, and served as Foreign Secretary for the first Korean delegation to visit the United States. Not everyone approved of Lowell's roving, intellectual or otherwise. "Poor Percy," the philanthropist Isabella Stewart Gardener once remarked, "[h]e takes a great interest in everything. . . but there is always something pathetic about him. . . his pleasant things always seem to fall flat." In 1893, the bachelor Japanist returned to America and turned his attention from demons to angels: traces of life in the night sky.