Solving the great Martian delusion

The 'canals' of Mars

Throughout history there must have been many cases where mistranslation from one language to another led to dramatic consequences.

A simple mistranslation in an astronomy report led to consequences that lasted almost 100 years. It started with Giovani Schiaparelli, an Italian astronomer with a strong interest in Mars. He had an excellent observing opportunity in 1877, when Mars and Earth passed close by one another.

Although Mars is a conspicuous, red, starlike object in the night sky, it is tricky to observe. It appears small, so high magnification is needed to see detail, which makes what you see very sensitive to air movement in our atmosphere, which causes the image to shimmer and shake, like looking at a coin at the bottom of a stream.

Consequently, getting a really clear view of Mars requires luck and patience. Through small telescopes Mars appears as a reddish disc with white polar caps and some darker patches. Over many hours of observation Schiaparelli gradually put together a drawing showing the larger surface features. In addition he noted some elongated structures he called channels.

Today, our orbiters, landers and rovers show Mars has many of these, due to erosion by water billions of years ago, when Mars was wetter and warmer than it is today.

Of course, Schiaparelli took his notes in Italian, in which the word for "channels" is "canali". However, when his report reached the English-speaking world, someone mistranslated "canali" as "canals". This turned Schiaparelli's naturally-formed channels into objects made by engineers. Mars had to be inhabited by intelligent, technically-advanced beings, in societies capable of undertaking major, global engineering projects, including massive works to manage water on a dying, drying planet. This understandably excited a lot of interest in the English-speaking world.

One of the most intrigued was Percival Lowell. He was a highly successful businessman, who had become wealthy enough to indulge his strong interest in astronomy, especially his fascination with the planet Mars.

So he funded the construction of an observatory on a hill near Flagstaff, Arizona. It was completed in time for him to observe the close approach of Mars to Earth in 1894. He produced drawings showing the Red Planet's disc, crossed by narrow, straight lines, which he said were canals, and the dark blobs where the canals intersected he called oases.

He proposed these waterways were constructed by a technically-sophisticated race of Martians to manage the water supply on a drying, dying world. Public interest was huge, especially among many writers.

In 1898, writer H.G Wells published his book "War of the Worlds", which described an attempt by Martians to leave their dying planet and take over ours. Another writer, Edgar Rice Burroughs, took Lowell's vision of Mars and populated it with honourable, brave warriors, despicable villains and beautiful princesses, eking out their lives on a dying world. Books and movies about Martian invasions continue to appear today.

Over the following decades astronomers found, over and over again, that with good instruments, used under the best observing conditions, there were no signs of those canals. They only showed up when observing conditions were poorer, when one's eyes strained for flashes of elusive detail.

That aroused suspicions that the canals were wishful thinking. However, that thinking persisted to the point where Lowell's images still appeared in space travel and astronomy books into the 1960's.

The Mars delusion was firmly ended in 1965, when the spacecraft Mariner 4 made a close fly-by of Mars and sent back pictures of a cratered desert. There were no signs of canals, cities, warriors, princesses, or any other forms of advanced life.


• Venus and Mars lie close together very low in the west after sunset.

• Saturn rises during the evening and Jupiter around midnight.

• The Moon will reach first quarter on July 25.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council's Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory near Penticton.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

More Skywatching articles

About the Author

Ken Tapping is an astronomer born in the U.K. He has been with the National Research Council since 1975 and moved to the Okanagan in 1990.  

He plays guitar with a couple of local jazz bands and has written weekly astronomy articles since 1992. 

Tapping has a doctorate from the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands.

[email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

Previous Stories