Lowell and Canals

VISUAL 5 (still): Lowell

Sharp-eyed observers with telescopes discovered the length of a Martian day is 24 hours and 37 minutes — not much more than one Earth day. They measured the planet’s smaller size, a little more than half the diameter of Earth. They noticed that many of Mars’ mysterious markings seem to darken and lighten as the polar ice caps grow and shrink with the seasons. In 1877, two tiny moons were discovered orbiting close to the red planet. They were named Phobos and Deimos.

One of the most persistent Mars observers was Percival Lowell, an American astronomer in the early part of the 20th century. He observed Mars over and over for many years, and he reported some controversial features that were very hard to see. Let’s look at one of his drawings, showing Mars as Lowell saw it. 

VISUAL 6 (still): Lowell’s Drawing

Lowell saw and named hundreds of fine lines criss-crossing the planet. He noted they seemed to connect the poles, which had white caps like the arctic regions of Earth, with the rest of the planet. Many astronomers never could see these fine lines, but several others agreed with Lowell that the lines were there. 

Assuming Lowell’s lines were real representations of surface features on Mars, what would you say those features might be?

Lowell guessed that the lines were canals, irrigating the Martian deserts. And where there are irrigation canals, there must be canal builders. Thus, Lowell suggested that there was a civilization of intelligent Martians. 

[Fade off Lowell’s Drawing.]

Mars has always excited the human imagination, and Lowell’s ideas about the possibility of intelligent beings on the Red Planet fired worldwide popular enthusiasm. The canal debate continued on through much of the 20th century. People wondered what the Martians might look like? Would they be hostile, or friendly? The canals of Mars also inspired countless stories, radio plays, movies, and TV shows. 

Do you have a favorite story or movie about Mars?