Written and illustrated by Jed McGowan
In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli discovered a series of straight, crisscrossing lines on the surface of Mars. He hypothesized that the lines were “canalis”, or “channels”, which transported water to dry, desolate areas. Schiaparelli’s idea was not so strange—many astronomers of the nineteenth century observed what they thought were vast seas and continents peppering the surface of Mars.
Schiaparelli never publicly claimed the canals were built by intelligent beings, but other prominent star-gazers did. Percival Lowell, an American astronomer who helped discover Pluto, popularized the idea that the lines were a massive feat of engineering executed by an advanced Martian civilization. “Canalis” became canals.
Lowell’s notion ignited the public’s imagination. According to Lowell, the canals were a planet-wide attempt to bring water from polar caps to a dying world. He theorized that Martians lived near the edges of the life-giving canals, where rare vegetation could grow. Earthlings were seeing the last, desperate efforts of a doomed race.
By the 1910s, very few astronomers believed there were canals on Mars. More powerful telescopes revealed no signs of canals or a Martian civilization. Where Lowell and others saw canals, new observers only found natural features such as eroded mountains. Another Italian astronomer, Vincenzo Cerulli, put forward a theory that the canals were an optical illusion caused by the inferior telescopes of the time. Cerulli’s theory is widely accepted today.
Past or present, while water was there, evidence of life on Mars has not been found.
The search continues.