Is Mars Habitable?/Chapter 8

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This little volume has necessarily touched upon a great variety of subjects, in order to deal in a tolerably complete manner with the very extraordinary theories by which Mr. Lowell attempts to explain the unique features of the surface of the planet, which, by long-continued study, he has almost made his own. It may therefore be well to sum up the main points of the arguments against his view, introducing a few other facts and considerations which greatly strengthen my argument.

The one great feature of Mars which led Mr. Lowell to adopt the view of its being inhabited by a race of highly intelligent beings, and, with ever-increasing discovery to uphold this theory to the present time, is undoubtedly that of the so-called 'canals'—their straightness, their enormous length, their great abundance, and their extension over the planet's whole surface from one polar snow-cap to the other. The very immensity of this system, and its constant growth and extension during fifteen years of persistent observation, have so completely taken possession of his mind, that, after a very hasty glance at analogous facts and possibilities, he has declared them to be 'non-natural'—therefore to be works of art—therefore to necessitate the presence of highly intelligent beings who have designed and constructed them. This idea has coloured or governed all his writings on the subject. The innumerable difficulties which it raises have been either ignored, or brushed aside on the flimsiest evidence. As examples, he never even discusses the totally inadequate water-supply for such worldwide irrigation, or the extreme irrationality of constructing so vast a canal-system the waste from which, by evaporation, when exposed to such desert conditions as he himself describes, would use up ten times the probable supply.

Again, he urges the 'purpose' displayed in these 'canals.' Their being all so straight, all describing great circles of the 'sphere,' all being so evidently arranged (as he thinks) either to carry water to some 'oasis' 2000 miles away, or to reach some arid region far over the equator in the opposite hemisphere! But he never considers the difficulties this implies. Everywhere these canals run for thousands of miles across waterless deserts, forming a system and indicating a purpose, the wonderful perfection of which he is never tired of dwelling upon (but which I myself can nowhere perceive). Yet he never even attempts to explain how the Martians could have lived before this great system was planned and executed, or why they did not first utilise and render fertile the belt of land adjacent to the limits of the polar snows—why the method of irrigation did not, as with all human arts, begin gradually, at home, with terraces and channels to irrigate the land close to the source of the water. How, with such a desert as he describes three-fourths of Mars to be, did the inhabitants ever get to know anything of the equatorial regions and its needs, so as to start right away to supply those needs? All this, to my mind, is quite opposed to the idea of their being works of art, and altogether in favour of their being natural features of a globe as peculiar in origin and internal structure as it is in its surface-features. The explanation I have given, though of course hypothetical, is founded on known cosmical and terrestrial facts, and is, I suggest, far more scientific as well as more satisfactory than Mr. Lowell's wholly unsupported speculation. This view I have explained in some detail in the preceding chapter.

Mr. Lowell never even refers to the important question of loss by evaporation in these enormous open canals, or considers the undoubted fact that the only intelligent and practical way to convey a limited quantity of water such great distances would be by a system of water-tight and air-tight tubes laid under the ground. The mere attempt to use open canals for such a purpose shows complete ignorance and stupidity in these alleged very superior beings; while it is certain that, long before half of them were completed their failure to be of any use would have led any rational beings to cease constructing them.

He also fails to consider the difficulty, that, if these canals are necessary for existence in Mars, how did the inhabitants ever reach a sufficiently large population with surplus food and leisure enabling them to rise from the low condition of savages to one of civilisation, and ultimately to scientific knowledge? Here again is a dilemma which is hard to overcome. Only a dense population with ample means of subsistence could possibly have constructed such gigantic works; but, given these two conditions, no adequate motive existed for the conception and execution of them—even if they were likely to be of any use, which I have shown they could not be.

Further Considerations on the Climate of Mars.

Recurring now to the question of climate, which is all-important, Mr. Lowell never even discusses the essential point—the temperature that must necessarily result from an atmospheric envelope one-twelfth (or at most one-seventh) the density of our own; in either case corresponding to an altitude far greater than that of our highest mountains.[1] Surely this phenomenon, everywhere manifested on the earth even under the equator, of a regular decrease of temperature with altitude, the only cause of which is a less dense atmosphere, should have been fairly grappled with, and some attempt made to show why it should not apply to Mars, except the weak remark that on a level surface it will not have the same effect as on exposed mountain heights. But it does have the same effect, or very nearly so, on our lofty plateaux often hundreds of miles in extent, in proportion to their altitude. Quito, at 9350 ft. above the sea, has a mean temperature of about 57°F., giving a lowering of 23° from that of Manaos at the mouth of the Rio Negro. This is about a degree for each 400 feet, while the general fall for isolated mountains is about one degree in 340 feet according to Humboldt, who notes the above difference between the rate of cooling for altitude of the plains—or more usually sheltered valleys in which the towns are situated—and the exposed mountain sides. It will be seen that this lower rate would bring the temperature of Mars at the equator down to 20°F. below the freezing point of water from this cause alone. But all enquirers have admitted, that if conditions as to atmosphere were the same as on the earth, its greater distance from the sun would reduce the temperature to -31°F., equal to 63° below the freezing point. It is therefore certain that the combined effect of both causes must bring the temperature of Mars down to at least 70° or 80° below the freezing point.

The cause of this absolute dependence of terrestrial temperatures upon density of the air-envelope is seldom discussed in text-books either of geography or of physics, and there seems to be still some uncertainty about it. Some impute it wholly to the thinner air being unable to absorb and retain so much heat as that which is more dense; but if this were the case the soil at great altitudes not having so much of its heat taken up by the air should be warmer than below, since it undoubtedly receives more heat owing to the greater transparency of the air above it; but it certainly does not become warmer. The more correct view seems to be that the loss of heat by radiation is increased so much through the rarity of the air above it as to more than counterbalance the increased insolation, so that though the surface of the earth at a given altitude may receive 10 per cent. more direct sun-heat it loses by direct radiation, combined with diminished air and cloud-radiation, perhaps 20 or 25 per cent. more, whence there is a resultant cooling effect of 10 or 15 per cent. This acts by day as well as by night, so that the greater heat received at high altitudes does not warm the soil so much as a less amount of heat with a denser atmosphere.

This effect is further intensified by the fact that a less dense cannot absorb and transmit so much heat as a more dense atmosphere. Here then we have an absolute law of nature to be observed operating everywhere on the earth, and the mode of action of which is fairly well understood. This law is, that reduced atmospheric pressure increases radiation, or loss of heat, more rapidly than it increases insolation or gain of heat, so that the result is always a considerable lowering of temperature. What this lowering is can be seen in the universal fact, that even within the tropics perpetual snow covers the higher mountain summits, while on the high plains of the Andes, at 15,000 or 16,000 feet altitude, where there is very little or no snow, travellers are often frozen to death when delayed by storms; yet at this elevation the atmosphere has much more than double the density of that of Mars!

The error in Mr. Lowell's argument is, that he claims for the scanty atmosphere of Mars that it allows more sun-heat to reach the surface; but he omits to take account of the enormously increased loss of heat by direct radiation, as well as by the diminution of air-radiation, which together necessarily produce a great reduction of temperature.

It is this great principle of the prepotency of radiation over absorption with a diminishing atmosphere that explains the excessively low temperature of the moon's surface, a fact which also serves to indicate a very low temperature for Mars, as I have shown in Chapter VI. These two independent arguments—from alpine temperatures and from those of the moon—support and enforce each other, and afford a conclusive proof (as against anything advanced by Mr. Lowell) that the temperature of Mars must be far too low to support animal life.

A third independent argument leading to the same result is Dr. Johnstone Stoney's proof that aqueous vapour cannot exist on Mars; and this fact Mr. Lowell does not attempt to controvert.

To put the whole case in the fewest possible words:

(1) All physicists are agreed that, owing to the distance of Mars from the sun, it would have a mean temperature of about -35°F. (= 456°F. abs.) even if it had an atmosphere as dense as ours.

(2) But the very low temperatures on the earth under the equator, at a height where the barometer stands at about three times as high as on Mars, proves, that from scantiness of atmosphere alone Mars cannot possibly have a temperature as high as the freezing point of water; and this proof is supported by Langley's determination of the low maximum temperature of the full moon.

The combination of these two results must bring down the temperature of Mars to a degree wholly incompatible with the existence of animal life.

(3) The quite independent proof that water-vapour cannot exist on Mars, and that therefore, the first essential of organic life—water—is non-existent.

The conclusion from these three independent proofs, which enforce each other in the multiple ratio of their respective weights, is therefore irresistible—that animal life, especially in its higher forms, cannot exist on the planet.

Mars, therefore, is not only uninhabited by intelligent beings such as Mr. Lowell postulates, but is absolutely UNINHABITABLE.

  1. A four inches barometer is equivalent to a height of 40,000 feet above sea-level with us.