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Monday, April 15, 2024

Column: Canals and operas

Science fiction’s obsession with Mars began with a mistranslation.

Giovanni Schiaparelli was an Italian astronomer, born in 1835. One of his great interests was observing Mars; in the style of great explorers, he named the “seas” and “continents” that he saw.

In 1877, he saw a network of linear structures on the surface of the planet that he called canali.

Now, the mix-up.

Canali best translates to “channel” (as in the English Channel). However, in the English publications of his work, canali was translated as “canal.”

This was a big deal. A channel is natural, but a canal is man-made. Was there intelligent life on Mars, busily manufacturing canals, buildings, vehicles and waiting to be contacted by Earthlings?

As it turns out, no. Most scientists in the 20th century came to the conclusion that there were no channels on Mars, let alone canals. When the Mariner 4 spacecraft photographed the surface of Mars in the 1960s, the high-resolution cameras picked up no such structures. The canali, tantalizing as the idea was, were most likely optical illusions of the low-resolution Earth telescopes of the day.

Percival Lowell, an American businessman and astronomer born in 1855, loved the idea of Martian canals. After reading the mistranslation of Shiaparelli’s book, he became dedicated to finding evidence for the existence of intelligent Martian life.

More on how that turned out later.

Science fiction writers of the day had also read Schiaparelli’s book with its unfortunate mistranslation. The number of space-faring stories involving Mars exploded. Martians were visiting Earth (The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells) and Earthlings were visiting Mars (The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury). Countless movies featuring the dying world were spawned with the advent of moving pictures.

As research about Mars came in and the red planet became less mysterious, Mars was left behind and fiction explored the rest of space. Astronomers raised on these stories followed closely behind, wanting to know more about these places.

Movies in particular helped popularize science fiction and the “space opera.” The term space opera, which is adventure sci-fi set on distant planets and focuses on heroic conflict, is not always a compliment. Viewers of the television show “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” a series from the 1980s and ’90s lampooning old science fiction and horror movies, are very familiar with the tired plots and lame characters typical of the flood of space opera films in the 1950s.

In the trash, however, were treasures. Among the most famous and long-lasting of the space opera genre on TV and movie screens was “Star Trek.” Even if you aren’t a dedicated Trekkie, you can probably name at least some of the cast and the phrases “where no man has gone before” and “live long and prosper.”

A newer example (and one of my favorite sci-fi shows) was “Firefly,” an example of a subgenre of space operas called space westerns. As the name implies, space westerns take themes from American Western stories involving lawlessness in frontiers and puts them onto other settled planets and spaceships.

“Firefly” only lasted one season (as opposed to “Star Trek” airing six full series and 11 feature films with a 12th in the making), but the high DVD sales and fan support campaigns after its cancellation pushed director Joss Whedon and Universal Pictures to produce the film Serenity.

But whatever happened to Percival Lowell, the great popularizer of science and astronomy? He funded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1894 (then a territory, not a state) and spent the next 15 years of his life searching for evidence of the Martian canals and his other wacky theory of “Planet X,” the planet beyond Neptune.

Lowell died of a stroke in 1916 at the age of 61, never having found conclusive proof of either idea. However, in 1930, Lowell Observatory astronomer Clyde Tombaugh actually found a tiny planet near the location Lowell expected Planet X to be. The new planet was named Pluto after the Roman god of the underworld and partly in recognition of Lowell, whose initials were PL.

Ironically, the reason he suspected a Planet X was due to discrepancies he saw in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, and that he believed was due to X’s gravity. The discrepancy was actually due to an incorrect estimate of Neptune’s mass; when the correct mass is factored in, the discrepancy disappears. Planet X was where he predicted due to luck.

Percival Lowell is interred in a mausoleum near Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill.

AMY STEWART can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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