Jonathan Salem Baskin

No Canals

Today, we didn’t discover waterways.

Mid-19th century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli first discovered the canali on Mars while he was finding and naming the continents and seas he saw through his telescope. Canali are channels formed naturally, but the word was mistranslated into canals, and gave birth to the idea that alien life had built waterways on Mars. American astronomer Percival Lowell, 20 years Schiaparelli’s junior, spent 15 years during the start of the 20th century writing very popular books about the canals he mapped through his telescope in Arizona. This helped inspire many fictional stories about life there, most notably the Barsoom series about an American Civil War veteran prospecting in Arizona who gets transported to a Mars filled with Tolkien-like kingdoms and adventures (the author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, would later write Tarzan, for which he’s remembered today).

Better telescopes all but annihilated scientific belief that the canals were anything more than natural features, yet the fact that they could have been cut by running water continued to fuel suspicions about life. I’d bet that most scientists who grew up in the 20th century harbored at least a nagging hope that something had lived on Mars, reading books like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and seeing in the Soviet’s launch of the space race the possibility that we’d really discover the truth once and for all. That truth occurred on this day in 1965 when the Mariner 4 spacecraft made the first-ever flyby of another planet. It shot close-up pictures of the surface of Mars, storing them on an on-board tape recorder before transmitting them back to Earth. Its rocky and barren landscape, exposed to the harshness of space, dashed most of those dreams of finding life there.

The Mars Curiosity rover is currently doing an amazing job of digging and looking for hints of life there, but I don’t think anybody is holding out hope that it’ll stumble over remnants of a Martian gondola or paddle.