Is Mars Habitable?/Chapter 2

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The Observatory in Arizona.

In 1894, after a careful search for the best atmospheric conditions, Mr. Lowell established his observatory near the town of Flagstaff in Arizona, in a very dry and uniform climate, and at an elevation of 7300 feet above the sea. He then possessed a fine equatorial telescope of 18 inches aperture and 26 feet focal length, besides two smaller ones, all of the best quality. To these he added in 1896 a telescope with 24 inch object glass, the last work of the celebrated firm of Alvan Clark & Sons, with which he has made his later discoveries. He thus became perhaps more favourably situated than any astronomer in the northern hemisphere, and during the last twelve years has made a specialty of the study of Mars, besides doing much valuable astronomical work on other planets.


Mr. Lowell's recent Books upon Mars.

In 1905 Mr. Lowell published an illustrated volume giving a full account of his observations of Mars from 1894 to 1903, chiefly for the use of astronomers; and he has now given us a popular volume summarising the whole of his work on the planet, and published both in America and England by the Macmillan Company. This very interesting volume is fully illustrated with twenty plates, four of them coloured, and more than forty figures in the text, showing the great variety of details from which the larger general maps have been constructed.

Non-natural Features of Mars.

But what renders this work especially interesting to all intelligent readers is, that the author has here, for the first time, fully set forth his views both as to the habitability of Mars and as to its being actually inhabited by beings comparable with ourselves in intellect. The larger part of the work is in fact devoted to a detailed description of what he terms the 'Non-natural Features' of the planet's surface, including especially a full account of the 'Canals,' single and double; the 'Oases,' as he terms the dark spots at their intersections; and the varying visibility of both, depending partly on the Martian seasons; while the five concluding chapters deal with the possibility of animal life and the evidence in favour of it. He also upholds the theory of the canals having been constructed for the purpose of 'husbanding' the scanty water-supply that exists; and throughout the whole of this argument he clearly shows that he considers the evidence to be satisfactory, and that the only intelligible explanation of the whole of the phenomena he so clearly sets forth is, that the inhabitants of Mars have carried out on their small and naturally inhospitable planet a vast system of irrigation-works, far greater both in its extent, in its utility, and its effect upon their world as a habitation for civilised beings, than anything we have yet done upon our earth, where our destructive agencies are perhaps more prominent than those of an improving and recuperative character.

A Challenge to the Thinking World.

This volume is therefore in the nature of a challenge, not so much to astronomers as to the educated world at large, to investigate the evidence for so portentous a conclusion. To do this requires only a general acquaintance with modern science, more especially with mechanics and physics, while the main contention (with which I shall chiefly deal) that the features termed 'canals' are really works of art and necessitate the presence of intelligent organic beings, requires only care and judgment in drawing conclusions from admitted facts. As I have already paid some attention to this problem and have expressed the opinion that Mars is not habitable,[1] judging from the evidence then available, and as few men of science have the leisure required for a careful examination of so speculative a subject, I propose here to point out what the facts, as stated by Mr. Lowell himself, do ==not== render even probable much less prove. Incidentally, I may be able to adduce evidence of a more or less weighty character, which seems to negative the possibility of any high form of animal life on Mars, and, a fortiori, the development of such life as might culminate in a being equal or superior to ourselves. As most popular works on Astronomy for the last ten years at least, as well as many scientific periodicals and popular magazines, have reproduced some of the maps of Mars by Schiaparelli, Lowell, and others, the general appearance of its surface will be familiar to most readers, who will thus be fully able to appreciate Mr. Lowell's account of his own further discoveries which I may have to quote. One of the best of these maps I am able to give as a frontispiece to this volume, and to this I shall mainly refer.

The Canals as described by Mr. Lowell.

In the clear atmosphere of Arizona, Mr. Lowell has been able on various favourable occasions to detect a network of straight lines, meeting or crossing each other at various angles, and often extending to a thousand or even over two thousand miles in length. They are seen to cross both the light and the dark regions of the planet's surface, often extending up to or starting from the polar snow-caps. Most of these lines are so fine as only to be visible on special occasions of atmospheric clearness and steadiness, which hardly ever occur at lowland stations, even with the best instruments, and almost all are seen to be as perfectly straight as if drawn with a ruler.

The Double Canals.

Under exceptionally favourable conditions, many of the lines that have been already seen single appear double—a pair of equally fine lines exactly parallel throughout their whole length, and appearing, as Mr. Lowell says, "clear cut upon the disc, its twin lines like the rails of a railway track." Both Schiaparelli and Lowell were at first so surprised at this phenomenon that they thought it must be an optical illusion, and it was only after many observations in different years, and by the application of every conceivable test, that they both became convinced that they witnessed a real feature of the planet's surface. Mr. Lowell says he has now seen them hundreds of times, and that his first view of one was 'the most startlingly impressive' sight he has ever witnessed.


Dimensions of the Canals.

A few dimensions of these strange objects must be given in order that readers may appreciate their full strangeness and inexplicability. Out of more than four hundred canals seen and recorded by Mr. Lowell, fifty-one, or about one eighth, are either constantly or occasionally seen to be double, the appearance of duplicity being more or less periodical. Of 'canals' generally, Mr. Lowell states that they vary in length from a few hundred to a few thousand miles long, one of the largest being the Phison, which he terms 'a typical double canal,' and which is said to be 2250 miles long, while the distance between its two constituents is about 130 miles.[2] The actual width of each canal is from a minimum of about a mile up to several miles, in one case over twenty. A great feature of the doubles is, that they are strictly parallel throughout their whole course, and that in almost all cases they are so truly straight as to form parts of a great circle of the planet's sphere. A few however follow a gradual but very distinct curve, and such of these as are double present the same strict parallelism as those which are straight.


Canals extend across the Seas.

It was only after seventeen years of observation of the canals that it was found that they extended also into and across the dark spots and surfaces which by the earlier observers were termed seas, and which then formed the only clearly distinguishable and permanent marks on the planet's surface. At the present time, Professor Lowell states that this "curious triangulation has been traced over almost every portion of the planet's surface, whether dark or light, whether greenish, ochre, or brown in colour." In some parts they are much closer together than in others, "forming a perfect network of lines and spots, so that to identify them all was a matter of extreme difficulty." Two such portions are figured at pages 247 and 256 of Mr. Lowell's volume.

The Oases.

The curious circular black spots which are seen at the intersections of many of the canals, and which in some parts of the surface are very numerous, are said to be more difficult of detection than even the lines, being often blurred or rendered completely invisible by slight irregularities in our own atmosphere, while the canals themselves continue visible. About 180 of these have now been found, and the more prominent of them are estimated to vary from 75 to 100 miles in diameter. There are however many much smaller, down to minute and barely visible black points. Yet they all seem a little larger than the canals which enter them. Where the canals are double, the spots (or 'oases' as Mr. Lowell terms them) lie between the two parallel canals.

No one can read this book without admiration for the extreme perseverance in long continued and successful observation, the results of which are here recorded; and I myself accept unreservedly the substantial accuracy of the whole series. It must however always be remembered that the growth of knowledge of the detailed markings has been very gradual, and that much of it has only been seen under very rare and exceptional conditions. It is therefore quite possible that, if at some future time a further considerable advance in instrumental power should be made, or a still more favourable locality be found, the new discoveries might so modify present appearances as to render a satisfactory explanation of them more easy than it is at present.

But though I wish to do the fullest justice to Mr. Lowell's technical skill and long years of persevering work, which have brought to light the most complex and remarkable appearances that any of the heavenly bodies present to us, I am obliged absolutely to part company with him as regards the startling theory of artificial production which he thinks alone adequate to explain them. So much is this the case, that the very phenomena, which to him seem to demonstrate the intervention of intelligent beings working for the improvement of their own environment, are those which seem to me to bear the unmistakable impress of being due to natural forces, while they are wholly unintelligible as being useful works of art. I refer of course to the great system of what are termed 'canals,' whether single or double. Of these I shall give my own interpretation later on.

  1. Man's Place in the Universe p. 267 (1903).
  2. This is on the opposite side of Mars from that shown in the frontispiece.