A Victorian theory that Mars was once artificially irrigated by a desperate advanced civilization

 
 
 
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We now live in an age of constant astronomical revelations. Every day, new discoveries lead us closer to the answer of the perennial questions about the universe, how it looks, how it works, and if we are alone in it, or if we share it with other intelligent beings. Theories about the existence of extraterrestrial sentient beings are not new. People have always explored this idea, especially in Victorian times.

One planet has is frequently the center of interest regarding this subject–Mars. Even today, scientists think that Mars is a good candidate for a planet that could have supported life in the past. One such scientist was Percival Lowell, but, it must be said, that his theory probably went too far.

Born into an influential Boston family, Percival has always been interested in the natural sciences, especially in astronomy. When he graduated from Harvard University and earned a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics, he gave a commencement speech explaining the origins of the Solar System and suggesting that it was formed from nebulous material, which was considered to be a rather complicated subject at the time.

Percival Lowell

Starting from 1893, he completely devoted his life to astronomy and built the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona Territory, with the purpose of studying the planet Mars. He deliberately picked this location because of the high altitude.

In his astronomical observations, Lowell focused his attention on the Red Planet. What most captured his attention was a drawing of the “canals of Mars” made by the famous Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. Lowell devoted about a decade and a half of his life to creating numerous detailed drawings of the surface of Mars and became famous for claiming that he saw canals on the planet through his telescope. According to his opinion, these were proof that the Red Planet was home to an advanced civilization. He gathered his research of Mars in three books: Mars, Mars and Its Canals, and Mars As the Abode of Life.

The “canals” on Mars as depicted by Lowell.

Although there were other scholars sharing Lowell’s opinion that the markings on Mars confirm the theory that the planet once sustained intelligent life, Lowell was the one who popularized the idea the most. In his analysis of the surface of Mars, Lowell spoke about “non-natural features,” among which were the “canals.”

Lowell’s theory was that all of those “artificial” canal features on the planet were made by some advanced civilization in the act of desperation. He thought that they constructed the canals in order to tap the polar caps of the planet, their last source of water, and save their drying and dying planet.

Lowell at his observatory in Flagstaff.

The idea became very popular among the public, but those in the scientific community weren’t so sure about Lowell’s theory. Other astronomers from the time were skeptical and didn’t recognize the same markings on the surface as Lowell did. Those who saw the features as he did, didn’t believe that the network of canals was so big. Lowell’s work and his Mars theories received a lot of negative criticism from the scientific community. In order to prove (or disprove) Lowell’s claims, in 1909, the sixty-inch Mount Wilson Observatory telescope in Southern California was used to observe the features that he spoke about. The telescope, which was far more powerful than the one that Lowell had, revealed some geological features that were probably formed due to natural erosion.

Lowell’s mausoleum / Author: Michael-Rainabba Richardson – CC BY-SA 3.0

Lowell’s “non-natural features” were once and for all disproved after NASA’s Mariner missions made some better images and scans of Mars back in the 1960s.The Mariner missions revealed the cratered surface of the planet, and it turned out that those canals were just an optical illusion.

An image of the Mars surface made by Mariner 4 (1965).

Ultimately, Lowell’s belief in the artificial nature of some features on Mars destroyed his career. This and the beginning of World War I deteriorated Lowell’s health. As a pacifist, he was devastated by the war, and his inability to prove his theory.

Read another story from us: Tom Sayers: A Victorian bricklayer who became the world’s first heavyweight boxing champion in 1860

Nevertheless, he is praised as one of the most influential popularizers of science before Carl Sagan. Soon after, Lowell suffered a fatal stroke and died on November 12, 1916, aged 61. He is buried near his Observatory on a place called Mars Hill.