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The Mars "Face" and Lowell's "Canals"
Copyright © 1998 by Larry Klaes (lklaes @
U.S. Northeast Regional Coordinator for The SETI League

In light of the recent Mars "face" controversy, I offer up this quote from an article written in the Wall Street Journal (!) in 1907:

"The most extraordinary development (in 1907) has been the proof afforded by the astronomical observations (showing) that conscious, intelligent human life exists upon the planet Mars... Dr. Lowell, director of the Lowell Observatory in Arizona... gives a number of photographs taken of Mars. . He sums up the testimony of these photographs by saying that they reveal to laymen and astronomers that markings exist on Mars which are, of course, the lines of the great canals constructed on Mars for the purpose of irrigating that globe..."

Starting in the 1890s, the wealthy astronomer Percival Lowell saw what he thought were straight lines crossing the surface of Mars. While he was not the first to see them, he was among the first and most vocal to make the radical interpretation that these lines were much too straight to be natural features. Therefore, they had to have been built by an advanced intelligence.

The next thing you know, Lowell had populated Mars with an ancient and noble civilization of highly intelligent Martians trying desperately to survive its dying planet by bringing water from the poles to their great cities along the equator.

All this from the small and blurry images of Mars he viewed through his ground-based telescopes at the bottom of Earth's ocean of shimmering air, never closer than 35 million miles from our planet.

Thanks to the wonders of the World Wide Web (WWW), you can read one of Lowell's books on this subject, titled simply Mars and published in 1895, by going to this URL:

British author H. G. Wells imagined in his great 1898 science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds, that Lowell's Martians decided it would probably be easier just to conquer Earth and take all of its bountiful resources for themselves from those noisy, primitive little monkeys walking around on that alluring blue globe. You can read this novel as well from this Web site URL:

The public was entranced by Lowell's vision of Mars populated by alien beings. Newspaper editors from such prestigious papers as The New York Times vigorously defended Lowell and scolded other astronomers who said they only saw dark smudges instead of lines and theorized that the "canals" were merely optical illusions produced by limited seeing from tens of millions of miles away. Many astronomers theorized that the "canals" were merely optical illusions produced by the limited seeing of natural surface features from tens of millions of miles away. The media and public accused the astronomers of not being open-minded to the possibility. In reality, all most astronomers were saying was they wanted more evidence and that Lowell was making a major claim from very little data.

I highly recommend these two works on this amazing event in planetary astronomy history for more information.

Lowell and Mars, by William Graves Hoyt, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1976 (reprinted 1996).

The following book is available in its entirety on the Web:

The Planet Mars: A History of Observation and Discovery by William Sheehan, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1996.

As it turned out, when the first unmanned Mariner probes began imaging Mars close up in the 1960s and 1970s, the canals Lowell saw were indeed optical illusions created by his human mind connecting indistinct and disconnected natural features on the Martian surface. Actually, there are "canals" on Mars, but they are natural waterways created eons ago when Mars apparently had large amounts of liquid water flowing across its land.

People really want to know if we are alone or not in the Universe. It is a subject that has certainly compelled me all of my life. For all I know, there could indeed be alien artifacts on Mars, or a big, black Monolith buried under the lunar crater Tycho. It is not impossible that some ETI have the capability and the will to explore other star systems, including our own, either with robot probes or in person.

But I find it unfortunate that for the last two decades, some people have expended a large amount of time, energy, and effort on a surface feature that looked like a face based on a couple of distant images taken by the Viking orbiter. Had they been as clear as the ones recently taken by Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), at least this Martian controversy probably never would have happened.

I know, people can spend their time and energy focusing on whatever they please. But just imagine how Lowell and others would have reacted could they have seen Mars with the clarity of our space probes.

In summation, there likely is life beyond Earth spread throughout our galaxy and beyond. But since I have no proof of this, I won't say so for certain. I am much less certain that there is evidence of alien visitation in our own solar system, especially with the Mars "face".

Why? Because with 400 billion stars in our vast Milky Way galaxy, I do not think our solar system, Mars, Earth, and humanity are the most well-known or popular visiting spots around, despite our culturally egocentric view as to humanity's importance in the greater scheme of things. But again, if evidence can be found to the contrary, I will be as happy, fascinated, and eager to know more about it as anybody else.

I just hope that when it comes to the "face", the "pyramids", the lunar "spires", and other such items seen only vaguely in blurry images, that we will keep Lowell and his "canals" in mind before we turn rocks into alien artifacts without further evidence.

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