Geographies of Mars: Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet

Geographies of Mars: Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet

by K. Maria D. Lane


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One of the first maps of Mars, published by an Italian astronomer in 1877, with its pattern of canals, fueled belief in intelligent life forms on the distant red planet—a hope that continued into the 1960s. Although the Martian canals have long since been dismissed as a famous error in the history of science, K. Maria D. Lane argues that there was nothing accidental about these early interpretations. Indeed, she argues, the construction of Mars as an incomprehensibly complex and engineered world both reflected and challenged dominant geopolitical themes during a time of major cultural, intellectual, political, and economic transition in the Western world.

Geographies of Mars telescopes in on a critical period in the development of the geographical imagination, when European imperialism was at its zenith and American expansionism had begun in earnest. Astronomers working in the new observatories of the American Southwest or in the remote heights of the South American Andes were inspired, Lane finds, by their own physical surroundings and used representations of the Earth’s arid landscapes to establish credibility for their observations of Mars. With this simple shift to the geographer’s point of view, Lane deftly explains some of the most perplexing stances on Mars taken by familiar protagonists such as Percival Lowell, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Lester Frank Ward. 

A highly original exploration of geography’s spatial dimensions at the beginning of the twentieth century, Geographies of Mars offers a new view of the mapping of far-off worlds.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226470788
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/30/2010
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

K. Maria D. Lane is assistant professor of geography at the University of New Mexico.

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Geographies of Mars

Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-47078-8

Chapter One

Understanding Mars: Sensation, Science, and Geography

If future observations should confirm the views as to the artificial nature of these features of the surface of the planet which most nearly resembles our Earth, it must be considered to be the most sensational astronomical discovery of the nineteenth century, and that which opens up the most exciting possibilities as to communication with beings who are sufficiently advanced to execute such widespread and gigantic irrigation works. —British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1898)

In an 1886 issue of the popular British magazine Chamber's, an anonymous article appeared under the title "Life on Mars." Declaring that Mars alone among the other planets of the solar system was likely to host life forms comparable to Earth's, the author suggested that Martian beings were probably fairly similar to humans. Despite the possibility of physical divergences conditioned by environmental factors, such as lungs capable of breathing extremely rarified air, the article asserted that there was no reason to think that the "Martialites" were anything other than thinking, sensing beings. In fact, the author reasoned, the considerably older age of the so-called red planet meant that "the Martialites are probably much further advanced in the arts and sciences" than humans. Recent reports from an "Italian astronomer who says he has lately detected lights on the planet moving about in such a way as seems to indicate a deliberate intention to open communication with the Earth" were cited as support for this possibility. Although much of the article was spent reviewing recent astronomical research and noting the many analogies that had been found between the geography of Mars and Earth, the author returned again and again to the question of Martian inhabitants and what they must be like. Reasoning that their form would be determined by the lesser gravity of Mars, the author offered the following comparison with humans:

If, therefore, we assume that the men are of such a size that their weight and activity are the same as ours, they would be about fourteen feet high on the average. This would make their strength very great; for not only would it be actually superior to ours, but, as every weight is so much smaller, it would be apparently proportionally increased. We should, therefore, expect to find that the Martialites have executed large engineering works; perhaps also their telescopes are much superior to ours, and we have been objects of interest for their observers.

Through this short assessment, Chamber's readers were treated to a preview of what would become the dominant interpretation of Mars over the following three decades. Although this particular unnamed author was likely drawing from a French astronomer's speculative interpretations of an Italian astronomer's recently reported Mars observations, these exact conjectures took root most deeply in the scientific and popular literatures of Britain and America over the next decade. The focus on Earth-Mars analogies, the speculation about Martian physical form, the certainty of Martian advancement in engineering, and the enthusiasm for Earth-Mars communication all figured prominently in the works of Anglophone astronomers, popular astronomy writers, literary commentators, and journalists alike. In what became a veritable sensation over Mars at the turn of the twentieth century, the physical and cultural geography of the red planet became household topics.

The beginnings of the fervor over Martian geography can be traced back to the 1878 publication of an Italian map that identified numerous linear features on the planet's surface. (See fig. .8 and the associated discussion in the next chapter.) no previous observer had detected anywhere near the level of detail that emerged on that particular map, and it would actually be another decade before other astronomers confirmed the straight, intersecting features it recorded in the landscape of Mars. Something about the exactness and linearity of the landscape that appeared on that map, however, captivated astronomers' attention while also provoking popular imaginations of Martian inhabitants. Initially labeled "canali" in the early Italian map, the faint lines came to be known as "canals" in the English-speaking world, soon anchoring a broader narrative that held the red planet to be both inhabited and irrigated by an advanced civilization. As this narrative became entrenched well beyond the confines of astronomy's disciplinary boundaries, it expanded to include the elements highlighted above in the 1886 Chamber's article. The Martians' apparent intelligence, size, and strength came to be seen as the means by which a vast network of irrigation canals had been engineered and built. The Martians' apparent organization and sophistication likewise spurred serious consideration of their ability and desire to communicate with humans.

Our modern view of the old "canal craze" holds that the original lines seen on Mars were probably an optical effect, in which astronomers' eyes resolved indistinctly seen landforms and color variations into simple shapes. Today's satellites in Martian orbit and Rovers on the Martian surface have found no evidence of canals, vegetation, or advanced inhabitants. There is a tendency, therefore, to look back on the century-old maps with a kind of amusement, and to dismiss the conjectures about a super-race of canal-digging engineers as overly imaginative or even intentionally deceptive. Some of the astronomers involved have been painted as publicity-driven egomaniacs or theologically blinkered ideologues who positioned themselves in the debate according to personal agendas, regardless of the "evidence" they encountered in their observations and investigations of Mars.

The most recent re-examinations of the historical record, however, have told a different story. As the topics of Martian geography were taken up by scientists, writers, commentators, lecturers, and artists a century ago, they were generally treated with seriousness and sometimes even deep philosophical attention. As expressed in the epigraph that opened this chapter, for instance, one of the foremost naturalists and British public intellectuals of the time considered Mars-related science so "exciting" that it warranted inclusion in a book written to describe the nineteenth century's most important intellectual and technological developments. Although astronomers engaged in numerous debates as to what exactly they were seeing on Mars, how well they were seeing it, and how their unusual observations should be interpreted, the mere possibility of Martian inhabitants was so striking that it ignited significant reaction across other disciplines and audiences. Sometimes in agreement and sometimes at odds, these different individuals, institutions, and audiences contributed views that coalesced into a functionally dominant (if not universal) understanding of Martian geography as arid, inhabited, and irrigated during the two decades spanning the turn of the twentieth century. Although belief in Martian canals and in the possibility of intelligent life on Mars continued well into the twentieth century, there was a limited time in which Mars science engendered what can properly be labeled a sensation. By focusing on the nature of this limited popular phenomenon, this book aims to consider the larger process of scientific knowledge production that both informed and was constituted by the popular response to Mars reports.

Analogy and the Seeds of Sensation

The seeds of popular interest in Mars were actually laid very early in the scientific study of the red planet. Well before Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported seeing "canali" on the Martian surface in 1877, and well before American astronomer Percival Lowell interpreted the "canals" as evidence of intelligent life on the red planet in 1894, Mars was known to astronomers as essentially Earth-like. As intellectual historians have noted, the planet Mars was central to the Copernican revision of celestial mechanics that was confirmed by Kepler in 1607. In the consequent theological and philosophical consideration of other planets as potential "worlds" complete with intelligent inhabitants, Mars itself became one of the prime suspects. In the ensuing debates over Mars' habitability and the probability of Martian beings' existence, commentators frequently turned attention to the red planet's perceived likeness to Earth, the only known inhabited planet. Although the early search for Earth-Mars analogies was driven by these philosophical considerations of Martian habitability, the potential for terrestrial analogy continued to drive scientific investigation of Mars for centuries (including into the present).

Throughout the period of the turn-of-the-century Mars sensation that provides the focus of this book, many findings or claims about Mars were considered interesting primarily insofar as they contributed to or detracted from the long-assumed terrestrial analogy. The color of the dark patches on Mars was investigated in order to determine whether the planet had oceans or vegetation like Earth. The atmospheric thickness of Mars was investigated to determine whether there was sufficient air to support life such as existed on Earth. The seasonal variations in surface colors and patterns were investigated to assess whether Mars experienced cycles of vegetative growth and senescence similar to those on Earth. All of these investigations were ultimately based on the original question of whether Mars was habitable or inhabited. As American astronomer Edward Holden put it, "There is certainly no more important question in planetary astronomy than to determine whether our neighboring planets are or are not inhabited.... To solve this question it is necessary to construct the most accurate map of the planet's surface and to observe with the greatest care all the phenomena as well as possible by means of terrestrial analogies, if this be possible." In essence, analogy became a fundamental way of thinking about Mars rather than merely a way of describing it. By the late nineteenth century, Mars was typically referred to as Earth's "nearest neighbor" or the planet in the solar system with "the greatest analogy" to Earth, despite the fact that Venus was commonly known to be closer to Earth in both size and orbital distance.

To a large extent, this phrasing reflected a focus on visible landscapes, the category in which Mars was clearly thought to be more analogous and interesting than the cloud-enshrouded Venus:

Though little more than half the Earth's size Mars has a significance in the public eye which places it first in importance among the planets. It is our nearest neighbor on the outer side of the Earth's path round the Sun, and viewed through a telescope of good magnifying power shows surface markings suggestive, with the aid of imagination, of continents, mountains, and valleys; of oceans, capes, and bays, and all the varying phenomena which the mind readily associates with a world like our own.

Descriptions and interpretations alike relied on such visual analogy, casting Mars as a landscape that could be observed in the same way travelers and geographers examined Earth's visible landscapes. The strength of the general Earth-Mars analogy was thus bolstered by representations of Martian landscape and culture as explicitly similar to exact locations and peoples on Earth. Sir Norman Lockyer, an eminent English astronomer, described sketches of Mars thus in an astronomy textbook: "In the upper [drawing] a sea is seen on the left, stretching down northwards; while, joined on to it, as the Mediterranean is joined on to the Atlantic, is a long narrow sea, which widens at its termination.... The coast-line on the right strangely reminds one of the Scandinavian peninsula, and the included Baltic Sea." Lowell likewise compared the size and probable operation of the Martian canals to the well-known waterway at Suez and contrasted their geometric appearance with the winding Mississippi River. He also frequently used terrestrial metaphors for literary effect, as when he remarked that a feature appeared to be "a beautiful cobalt blue, like some Martian grotto of Capri." Many other Mars observers equaled him in this regard, with various Martian features compared at one time or another to Switzerland, Ireland, Amsterdam, London's Hyde Park, Ohio, Puerto Rico, Scandinavia, the Mediterranean Sea, the Strait of Malacca, Lake Tanganyka, the South African veldt, and so on. Such comparisons generally served to "tighten the knot of analogy between Mars and the Earth" and reinforce the idea that Mars was "a small version of the Earth."

Even when claiming that Mars was rather different from Earth, astronomers typically reinforced their arguments with analogies to specific places. For instance, Schiaparelli wrote in 189 that the general topography of Mars "does not present any analogy with the Earth" but then continued that the canals could be "produced by the evolution of the planet, just as on the Earth we have the English Channel and the Channel of Mozambique." Similarly, Holden argued in a critique of Lowell that terrestrial analogies failed to explain the changes on Mars, but then in the same paragraph suggested a terrestrial analogy to explain the faintly colored regions of Mars: "Are they vast shoals like the Grand Banks of newfoundland?" The repeated invocation of specific terrestrial landscapes thus paradoxically served mainly to reinforce the widespread conviction that Mars could be explained almost entirely by analogy with Earth.

These comparisons served in general to support the emergence and duration of the sensational inhabited-Mars theory. Upon reading that "the smallest object that would be discernible on Mars must be as large as London [and that] it would not be possible to see a point so small as would either Liverpool or Manchester be if they were on that planet," readers had to make only the smallest conceptual leap to imagine actual Martian cities. Similarly, reports that the annual melting of Mars' polar ice caps "is of as much importance as the annual inundation of the Nile is to the Fellaheen of Egypt" helped cast Mars as a specific, legible, populated landscape. Lowell, in particular, used the Mars-Earth analogy eloquently in support of his arguments, inspiring readers' interest in the possibility that Mars could be an inhabited world:

For all practical purposes Mars is our nearest neighbor in space. Of all the orbs about us, therefore, he holds out most promise of response to that question which man instinctively makes as he gazes up at the stars: What goes on upon all those distant globes? Are they worlds, or are they mere masses of matter? Are physical forces alone at work there, or has evolution begotten something more complex, something not unakin to what we know on Earth as life? It is in this that lies the peculiar interest of Mars.

Markley has argued that the Earth-Mars analogy operated paradoxically, working at the scale of the planetary whole yet breaking down at the scale of specific landforms like the canals. Even acknowledgments that the Mars-Earth analogy was imperfect, however, do not seem to have dimmed the overall enthusiasm for terrestrial comparisons or for Martian habitability. Referring to the work of several astronomers who disputed the inhabited-Mars theory and its analogical basis, for example, the Welsh astronomy writer Arthur Mee admitted, "on the whole, their testimony does not make in favour of terrestrial analogies, which seem to diminish, the closer and more critical the examination of the planet." At the same time, however, Mee wrote as if convinced that the analogy was correct: "the general aspect of the planet reminds one strangely of the probable appearance of our Earth could we view it at the distance of Mars. On the rare occasions when I have been fortunate enough to secure good views of the planet, the impression of sea and land and polar snow was overwhelming."

Crowe has asserted that logical fallacies—such as the mistaking of analogy for proof—were instrumental to most of the claims made by early proponents of the inhabited-Mars hypothesis. But visual analogy was much more important than merely providing a plausible substitute for logical proof. It produced scientific understandings and provoked popular sensations that gave Mars a specific cultural significance that would not have developed otherwise. Although viewers like Mee could concede that Mars' geometric surface features defied analogical explanation, they still maintained that the general appearance and seasonal variations of Mars indicated a living world that could host intelligent life. It was this paradox that encapsulated the intrigue Mars presented to popular audiences. If Mars was fundamentally similar to Earth, yet also radically different, the challenge of making sense of its landscape became both daunting and imperative.


Excerpted from Geographies of Mars by K. MARIA D. LANE Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


1. Understanding Mars: Sensation, Science, and Geography

2. Representing Scientific Data: Cartographic Inscription and Visual Authority

3. Representing Scientific Sites: Vision and Fieldwork at the Mountain Observatories

4. Representing Scientists: Heroism, Adventure, and the Geographical Outlook

5. Placing the Red Planet: Meanings in the Martian Landscape

6. Toward a Cultural Geography of Mars: Imaginative Geography and the Superior Martian




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