Wednesday’s Book Review: “Geographies of Mars: Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet”

Geographies of MarsGeographies of Mars: Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet. By K. Maria D. Lane. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Illustrations, acknowledgments, notes, bibliography, index. 266 pages. Hardcover with dust jacket. ISBN: 978-0-226-47078-8. $45.00.

Mars has long held a special fascination for humans who pondered the planets of the solar system—partly because of the possibility that life might either presently exist or at some time in the past might have existed ­there. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli published a work in 1877 that laid the foundation for the belief in canals on Mars. His map of Mars showed a system of what he called canali, in Italian this meant “channel” and carried no connotation of being an artificial feature. Even so, the word was commonly translated into English as “canal” and began the speculation that Mars held life that were changing the planet’s features for their own purposes.

American astronomer Percival Lowell became interested in Mars during the latter part of the nineteenth century, and built what became the Lowell Observatory near Flagstaff, Arizona, to study the red planet. His research advanced the argument that Mars had once been a watery planet and that the topographical features known as canals had been built by intelligent beings. Over the course of the first forty years of the twentieth century others used Lowell’s observations of Mars as a foundation for their arguments. The idea of intelligent life on Mars stayed in the popular imagination for a long time, and it was only with the scientific data returned from probes to the planet since the beginning of the space age that this began to change.

Begun as a dissertation written at the University of Chicago, Geographies of Mars: Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet offers a fascinating analysis of the phenomenon of canals on Mars and the personality of Lowell and his detractors in arguing about these astronomical observations. K. Maria D. Lane, now on the faculty of the University of New Mexico, provides six succinct chapters that explore the Percival Lowell arguments about an inhabited Mars and his speculations on the nature of its society. Lane comments that in part because of the efforts of astronomers like Lowell the people living between about 1880 and 1910 had a “functionally dominant (if not universal) understanding of Martian geography as arid, inhabited, and irrigated” (p. 13). In Lane’s estimation this perception came because of the emphasis on geographical knowledge, especially cartography, in shape public perceptions in the United States.

The author makes several important points about this process. First, she lays out a very compelling case for a de-emphasis of the “canali” to “canal” misinterpretation that has dominated explanations of how the story of artificial canals perceived on the Martian surface might have originated. Instead, she finds that the authority of both Schiaparelli’s and Lowell’s maps proved the deciding point. Both emphasized long straight, dark lines on the planet’s surface that seemed to delineate some type of artificiality. Even without the translation issue, the power of the image burned the idea of canals into viewers’ brains. Lowell’s persistent beating of the drum for intelligent beings having built those canals proved decisive in shaping ideas about life on the red planet over the decades. The scientific community squared off over this debate, with most of the academic astronomers questioning Lowell’s conclusions, especially when their own observations did not match his own for clarity in depicting the lines on the planet’s surface that Lowell said were canals. This conclusion is a very important contribution of Geographies of Mars to the literature about Mars in the American imagination.

Some of Lane’s other findings are also significant. For example, she includes a chapter on observatories as places remote, unforgiving, and hard to reach. With the move in the latter half of the nineteenth century of astronomers founding observatories in tops of mountains, with Yerkes, Lowell, and Lick observatories all in wilderness settings in high places on the Earth, the sense of adventure and hardship conjured in the minds of Americans raised the status of those who worked in those places. In essence, these activities were hard and, therefore, those who engaged in them were dedicated scientific explorers and their conclusions were to be embraced. All of this played into a developing cult of expertise that the astronomers enjoyed. Such claims as made by Lowell about Mars, therefore, enjoyed ready acceptance in part because of this development. As Lane concluded, “In the era of Mars debates and the popular canal sensation, however, a metropolitan-versus-mountain dichotomy provided the critical means of differentiating among the credibility of observatories, astronomers, and hypotheses. The higher, the more remote, the more rugged, and the more sublime, the better” (p. 95).

Likewise, the astronomer as hero, not unlike the intrepid explorers of the poles during the same era, lent a certain credibility to their hypotheses not possible previously. Lowell’s mountaintop sitting at his observatory above Flagstaff, and the heroic nature of his observations, lent credence to his arguments about the possibility of canals and therefore sophisticated life on the red planet. And he played it for all it was worth.

Finally, Lane offers interesting and quite appropriate findings concerning the speculations about the life on Mars that Lowell offered. Lowell insisted that Mars was a planet on the verge of extinction because of the scarcity of water. He rationalized that the only way it could hold on was through the creation of a hydraulic society in which the best minds of that society ran everything for the benefit of all. The organization and structure of every institution associated with Mars, Lowell reasoned, reflected this need to control the environment. In such a situation, he continued, society’s greatest minds conspired to create a hydraulic civilization under their suzerainty. In order to flourish on Mars they had to create a society that was dependent upon large-scale waterworks—productive (for irrigation) and protective (for flood control). This not only made the planet habitable, it brought urbanization and wealth there as well. There were other examples of this in world history and Lowell applied the example of ancient Egypt as the first of this type of civilization.

These ideas reflected Lowell’s concepts of Progressivism and government by the best and the brightest to ensure the success of all. Lane makes the case that this was very much a perspective reflective of European colonialism. The British of India undertook massive public works projects with the purpose of transforming the subcontinent from what they considered the backward civilization that they encountered when they first arrived there. Lowell’s Mars was essentially a test case for the envisioned “benign American empire [that] would be based on rational-scientific decision-making entrusted to a technocratic elite” (p. 177). At sum, his analysis of civilization on Mars served as a brief for American colonial activities worldwide.

Geographies of Mars is an excellent, quite original take on the Martian canals question. It deserves a place on the shelves of all historians and social scientists interested in the place of Mars in the American imagination.

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