Astronomer Percival Lowell’s View of a Peaceful Mars

Percival Lowell is the American astronomer most associated with the notorious and unfortunately entirely illusory Martian canals. The Italian astronomer Schiaparelli first saw what he called canali in the 19th century, but the Italian can mean both ‘canals’ and ‘channels’. Lowell also believed that they were canals dug by a global Martian civilisation, who used them to bring water from the poles to irrigate their desert planet. For them to achieve this, the highly advanced Martians had finally succeeded in banning war. I found this quotation from the great astronomer in Patrick Moore’s and David A. Hardy’s The New Challenge of the Stars (London: Mitchell Beazley in association with Sidgwick and Jackson Limited 1977), with the authors’ own comments looking forward to a similarly peaceful human colonisation of the Red Planet.

Perhaps we may look back to the words of Percival Lowell, written in 1906. He may have been wrong in his interpretation of the so-called Martian canals, but at least he put forward an idealistic view of the attitude of his ‘Martians’, whom, he believed, had outlawed warfare and had united in order to make the est of their arid world. There could be no conflict upon Mars. In Lowell’s words: ‘War is a survival among us from savage times, and affects now chiefly the boyish and unthinking element of the nation. The wisest realize that there are better ways of practising heroism and more certain ends of ensuring the survival of the fittest. It is something people outgrow.’ Let us hope that we, too, have outgrown it before we set up the first place on the red deserts of Mars.(P. 18).

Okay, the Social Darwinism is grotty, but of its time. And unfortunately humanity has not outgrown its capacity for violence and war, with the 20th century one of the worst periods. But it is an inspiring vision. The late, great comedian Bill Hicks used to end his gigs with a similar vision: If the world spent on peace all the money it now spends on arms, we could end hunger. Not one person would starve, and colonise space in peace forever.

That day can’t come too soon.

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2 Responses to “Astronomer Percival Lowell’s View of a Peaceful Mars”

  1. Brian Burden Says:

    I wonder whether any research has been done to ascertain whether there is any correlation between the “canals” charted by Lowell and others and the dried-up natural water courses visible on NASA pics. As recently as the 1954 opposition astronomers were reporting linear markings on the Martian surface, and Keyhoe even alleges, in The Flying Saucer Conspiracy – and later, in Aliens From Space, if my memory serves me right – that a photographic survey commissioned by the National Geographic was suppressed by the USAF in that year. It’s interesting that the 1897 opposition not only inspired Wells’s War Of The Worlds, but seems to have triggered off a rash of “mystery airship” reports in USA, of which the most impressive is the account of the Aurora,Tex. airship crash and the subsequent recovery and burial of the “Martian” pilot.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Really good question, Brian. One theory is that Lowell was using a technique to adjust the magnification on his telescope by half covering the aperture with a piece of wood. When that’s done, it can produce spidery lines on the image. I’ve heard that suggested as the origin of the canals. But Carl Sagan in Cosmos said that he had also seen faint lines on Mars which looked like real features. I didn’t realise that as late as 1954 astronomers were reporting markings like the canals on Mars. Very interesting.

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