Geographies of Mars

"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 asks as he gazes up at the stars: What goes on upon all those distant globes?" So wrote Percival Lowell in his 1895 bestseller Mars, the book that launched his career as the world's most famous and controversial astronomer. More than a century later, mankind's fascination with Mars is still going strong. Not long ago, when a couple of scientists half-seriously suggested that NASA send a one-way manned mission to Mars, the Internet was flooded with would-be volunteers. For many, even death is not too high a price to pay to gratify our curiosity about the red planet.

 

In Geographies of Mars: Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet, K. Maria D. Lane explores the origins of our Martian obsession in the late nineteenth century. Back then, the idea that man-made probes would one day be able to test Martian soil for ice crystals would have been considered outlandish science fiction. Yet as Lane shows, through her study of popular treatments of Mars in books, magazines, and newspapers, the absence of real knowledge about the planet did not stop people from talking about it. On the contrary, the less data astronomers had about Mars, the more eagerly they and their journalistic interpreters filled the void with assumptions, speculations, and fantasies. And these fantasies, Lane argues, have much to tell us about the way turn-of-the-century Americans and Europeans thought about space, knowledge, and power.

 

Percival Lowell is at the center of Geographies of Mars, because he was the most recklessly imaginative of the Martian speculators. In 1878, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli published a map of Mars which purported to show numerous small landmasses divided by channels. As Lane explains, Schiaparelli was working from hand-made drawings of the obscure, fleeting images he could see through his telescope, in an age before astronomers could take photographs of the stars. Within decades, better observers would prove that these channels were optical illusions. But starting in the 1880s, there was a kind of arms race among astronomers as they tried to identify more and more canals.

 

On these slender foundations great structures of speculation were built—especially by Lowell, who devoted himself to convincing the world that there was life on Mars. Were the "channels" actually canals? Did they represent the work of a Martian race, stronger and smarter than human beings? Was the red planet home to a civilization older than Earth's, in which the exhaustion of natural resources spurred ingenious technological advances? "Assuming that the Martian is...merely a machine with brains," one excitable journalist wrote, "his canal excavating possibilities, on a planet where bodies weigh only one-third as much as on the earth, become truly awesome."

 

In telling this story, Lane shows how the popular imagination made myths out of astronomers themselves—fetishizing their mountaintop laboratories, their exotic expeditions, their masculine toughness. We no longer dream about Martians, but the lesson of Geographies of Mars is still timely: science may be the search for truth, but the way we think and talk about science is a product of our hopes, fears, and dreams.


 

Footnotes:

 

Even as you read this, billions of the infinitesimal, almost undetectable particles known as neutrinos are passing through your body. In Neutrino (Oxford), Frank Close tells the story of the discovery of this enigmatic "little neutron," from the first theoretical prediction of its existence by Wolfgang Pauli to today's massive subterranean particle colliders, where cosmologists hope the neutrino will reveal the secrets of the origin of the universe.

 

 

 

In 1773, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell took a three-month trip through Scotland, and each of them wrote a book about it: Johnson's Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, often published together, are classics of English literature. Now William W. Starr retraces their path in Whiskey, Kilts, and the Loch Ness Monster: Traveling through Scotland with Boswell and Johnson (University of South Carolina), discovering what has and hasn't changed about Scotland in the last couple of centuries.

 

 

 

In Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty: The CIA Years and Beyond (Stanford), A. Ross Johnson, a Radio Free Europe veteran, documents the first two decades of the American broadcasting service, which beamed uncensored news behind the Iron Curtain and became "one of the most important and successful policy instruments of the United States during the Cold War."

July 22: On this day in 1941, on his twelfth wedding anniversary, Eugene O'Neill presented the just-finished manuscript of Long Day's Journey into Night to his wife, Carlotta.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

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