Is Mars Habitable?/Chapter 4

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Having now shown, that, even admitting the accuracy of all Mr. Lowell's observations, and provisionally accepting all his chief conclusions as to the climate, the nature of the snow-caps, the vegetation, and the animal life of Mars, yet his interpretation of the lines on its surface as being veritably 'canals,' constructed by intelligent beings for the special purpose of carrying water to the more arid regions, is wholly erroneous and rationally inconceivable. I now proceed to discuss his more fundamental position as to the actual habitability of Mars by a highly organised and intellectual race of material organic beings.

Water and Air essential to Life.

Here, fortunately, the issue is rendered very simple, because Mr. Lowell fully recognises the identity of the constitution of matter and of physical laws throughout the solar-system, and that for any high form of organic life certain conditions which are absolutely essential on our earth must also exist in Mars. He admits, for example, that water is essential, that an atmosphere containing oxygen, nitrogen, aqueous vapour, and carbonic acid gas is essential, and that an abundant vegetation is essential; and these of course involve a surface-temperature through a considerable portion of the year that renders the existence of these—especially of water—possible and available for the purposes of a high and abundant animal life.

Blue Colour the only Evidence of Water.

In attempting to show that these essentials actually exist on Mars he is not very successful. He adduces evidence of an atmosphere, but of an exceedingly scanty one, since the greatest amount he can give to it is—"not more than about four inches of barometric pressure as we reckon it";[1] and he assumes, as he has a fair right to do till disproved, that it consists of oxygen and nitrogen, with carbon-dioxide and water-vapour, in approximately the same proportions as with us. With regard to the last item—the water-vapour—there are however many serious difficulties. The water-vapour of our atmosphere is derived from the enormous area of our seas, oceans, lakes, and rivers, as well as from the evaporation from heated lands and tropical forests of much of the moisture produced by frequent and abundant rains. All these sources of supply are admittedly absent from Mars, which has no permanent bodies of water, no rain, and tropical regions which are almost entirely desert. Many writers have therefore doubted the existence of water in any form upon this planet, supposing that the snow-caps are not formed of frozen water but of carbon-dioxide, or some other heavy gas, in a frozen state; and Mr. Lowell evidently feels this to be a difficulty, since the only fact he is able to adduce in favour of the melting snows of the polar caps producing water is, that at the time they are melting a marginal blue band appears which accompanies them in their retreat, and this blue colour is said to prove conclusively that the liquid is not carbonic acid but water. This point he dwells upon repeatedly, stating, of these blue borders: "This excludes the possibility of their being formed by carbon-dioxide, and shows that of all the substances we know the material composing them must be water."

This is the only proof of the existence of water he adduces, and it is certainly a most extraordinary and futile one. For it is perfectly well known that although water, in large masses and by transmitted light, is of a blue colour, yet shallow water by reflected light is not so; and in the case of the liquid produced by the snow-caps of Mars, which the whole conditions of the planet show must be shallow, and also be more or less turbid, it cannot possibly be the cause of the 'deep blue' tint said to result from the melting of the snow.

But there is a very weighty argument depending on the molecular theory of gases against the polar caps of Mars being composed of frozen water at all. The mass and elastic force of the several gases is due to the greater or less rapidity of the vibratory motion of their molecules under identical conditions. The speed of these molecular motions has been ascertained for all the chief gases, and it is found to be so great as in certain cases to enable them to overcome the force of gravity and escape from a planet's surface into space. Dr. G. Johnstone Stoney has specially investigated this subject, and he finds that the force of gravity on the earth is sufficient to retain all the gases composing its atmosphere, but not sufficient to retain hydrogen; and as a consequence, although this gas is produced in small quantities by volcanoes and by decomposing vegetation, yet no trace of it is found in our atmosphere. The moon however, having only one-eightieth the mass of the earth, cannot retain any gas, hence its airless and waterless condition.

Water Vapour cannot exist on Mars.

Now, Dr. Stoney finds that in order to retain water vapour permanently a planet must have a mass at least a quarter that of the earth. But the mass of Mars is only one-ninth that of the earth; therefore, unless there are some special conditions that prevent its loss, this gas cannot be present in the atmosphere. Mr. Lowell does not refer to this argument against his view, neither does he claim the evidence of spectroscopy in his favour. This was alleged more than thirty years ago to show the existence of water-vapour in the atmosphere of Mars, but of late years it has been doubted, and Mr. Lowell's complete silence on the subject, while laying stress on such a very weak and inconclusive argument as that from the tinge of colour that is observed a little distance from the edge of the diminishing snow-caps, shows that he himself does not think the fact to be thus proved. If he did he would hardly adduce such an argument for its presence as the following: "The melting of the caps on the one hand and their re-forming on the other affirm the presence of water-vapour in the Martian atmosphere, of whatever else that air consists" (p. 162). Yet absolutely the only proof he gives that the caps are frozen water is the almost frivolous colour-argument above referred to!

No Spectroscopic Evidence of Water Vapour.

As Sir William Huggins is the chief authority quoted for this fact, and is referred to as being almost conclusive in the third edition of Miss Clerke's History of Astronomy in 1893, I have ascertained that his opinion at the present time is that "there is no conclusive proof of the presence of aqueous vapour in the atmosphere of Mars, and that observations at the Lick Observatory (in 1895), where the conditions and instruments are of the highest order, were negative." He also informs me that Marchand at the Pic du Midi Observatory was unable to obtain lines of aqueous vapour in the spectrum of Mars; and that in 1905, Slipher, at Mr. Lowell's observatory, was unable to detect any indications of aqueous vapour in the spectrum of Mars.

It thus appears that spectroscopic observations are quite accordant with the calculations founded on the molecular theory of gases as to the absence of aqueous vapour, and therefore presumably of liquid water, from Mars. It is true that the spectroscopic argument is purely negative, and this may be due to the extreme delicacy of the observations required; but that dependent on the inability of the force of gravity to retain it is positive scientific evidence against its presence, and, till shown to be erroneous, must be held to be conclusive.

This absence of water is of itself conclusive against the existence of animal life, unless we enter the regions of pure conjecture as to the possibility of some other liquid being able to take its place, and that liquid being as omnipresent there as water is here. Mr. Lowell however never takes this ground, but bases his whole theory on the fundamental identity of the substance of the bodies of living organisms wherever they may exist in the solar system.

In the next two chapters I shall discuss an equally essential condition, that of temperature, which affords a still more conclusive and even crushing argument against the suitability of Mars for the existence of organic life.

  1. In a paper written since the book appeared the density of air at the surface of Mars is said to be 1/12 of the earth's.