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Title    : The Martians, Part 1
Author : Unknown
Date    :


AROUND A MINOR G-TYPE STAR fairly far out toward one edge of a medium-sized
galaxy the planets of that star swung as usual, just as they had for billions
of years, under the influence of a slightly modified inverse square law that
shaped the space around them. Three of them were big enough, as planets go,
to be noticeable; the rest were mere pebbles, concealed in the fiery skirts
of the primary or lost in the black outer reaches of space. All of them, as
is always the case, were infected with that oddity of distorted entropy
called life; in the cases of the third and fourth planets their surface
temperatures cycled around the freezing point of hydrogen monoxide - in
consequence they had developed life forms similar enough to permit a degree
of social contact.

On the fourth pebble out the ancient Martians were not in any important sense
disturbed by the contact with Earth...
(Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein)

IN THE REAL WORLD, on the third pebble, called Earth by its inhabitants, and
often called Terra by writers of speculative fiction, there had developed a
civilization with a level of technology sufficient to send robot spacecraft
to probe the surface of the fourth planet. They were quite excited by the
data and photographs transmitted back to them by these probes, as well as the
data and photographs transmitted back by orbiting probes. Some of them even
found in the photographs surface formations that appeared to have been made
by intelligent beings, although that interpretation of these formations was
in great dispute on the third planet. The probes that landed on the surface
of the fourth planet did not, by the criteria of the scientists of Earth,
detect evidence of life in the areas in which they landed. The inhabitants of
Earth, who called themselves humans, had begun developing a technological
civilization a few thousands of revolutions of the third planet about the sun
("years") earlier, and had been speculating about the possible existence of
life forms on the fourth planet for quite some time.

Humans were a rather violent species, and their ancestors of a few thousand
years before, called Romans, had named the fourth planet Mars, after their
god of war, because the fourth planet was observed to be the color of human
blood, which is red. The violent nature of humans remained, for the most
part, unchanged through the ensuing centuries (A century is a hundred years),
and the name Mars had been kept, rightly or wrongly, for the fourth planet,
as had the Roman names for the other planets. As humans discovered heretofore
unknown planets, they followed suit and gave them the names of other Roman
gods, even though the Roman religion had faded into history centuries before
the three outermost planets were discovered.

The fourth planet attracted the attention of the humans even before they had
instruments that would allow them to observe her closely. One particular
group of humans, known as astrologers, showed particular interest in Mars
because, at certain times, it appeared to move backwards in its orbit.
Astrologers were a semi-religious group who believed that they could predict
the future from the motions of the planets and stars. Most early astronomers
were also astrologers, and this apparent backward motion of Mars was quite
disconcerting to them.

In the year 1609 (Most humans calculate their dates from a year that is
supposed to be the year in which one of their major religious figures died.
The date used for this is currently considered to be incorrect even by human
religious leaders.), a human astrologer/astronomer named Johannes Kepler used
the visual observations of another astrologer/astronomer named Tycho Brahe to
determine that the seemingly strange orbit of Mars about the sun was a result
of that orbit's being an ellipse, rather than a circle as had been thought

Also in 1609, another human astronomer took a device called a spyglass and
improved it into what became known as the telescope. His name was Galileo
Galilei, and the next year he became the first human to see Mars as a disc
through one of his telescopes. He and Kepler were friends, and Kepler wrote
to him that he expected Mars to have two moons, although none had been
discovered. Kepler, as we said, was an astrologer as well as an astronomer,
and he wrote many papers in which he claimed to find mathematical
relationships in the orbital distances of the planets from the sun, and in
the number of moons each would have, as well. He was later found to be right
about Mars, but he calculated that Mercury and Venus should have one each. He
was quite wrong.

The next major observations of Mars were in 1659, and were made by a Dutchman
(People from the country of Holland are called Dutchmen by humans. Holland is
now known as the Netherlands. Humans can be very confusing.). Anyhow, this
human was named Christiaan Huygens, and he improved on Galileo's telescope by
grinding better lenses and by inventing the compound eyepiece. He used his
improved telescope to observe Mars and to actually make the observation that
it rotated on its axis, just as the Earth did. He also was one of the the
first humans to draw maps of Mars showing the features that he was able to
observe through his more powerful telescopes. One of these was a broad dark
area known as Sytris Major, also known as "the Hourglass Sea".

A few years later, in 1666, an Italian astronomer named Gian D. Cassini was
able to calculate the Martian day at 24 hours 40 minutes, which was quite a
remarkable feat for the time. He is also said to have been the first to
observe the Martian polar ice caps, although this is said to be debatable.

Mars was beginning to look quite similar to earth - 24 hour day, polar ice
caps, and changing surface features that looked a bit like changing seasons
on Earth might look from such a distance. Not much more was learned about
Mars over the next century. Too much was happening on Earth, with the
settling of the "new world" and all. Telescopes mostly collected dust. The
next major observations of Mars were by astronomer William Herschel in 1783,
who calculated its diameter and determined that it had a thin atmosphere.

In 1858, observations of Mars began to become much more lively, as Pietro
Secchi, director of the Observatory of Rome (That's the same Rome that was
home to the Romans, who gave Mars its name, but now it was the capital of
Italy.), described what he thought was a sea on Mars, calling it a "canale".
Secchi believed that Mars had seas and rivers that swelled with the seasonal
melting of the polar ice caps.

Throughout all of these observations, no one had found any moons orbiting
Mars. As we said, Kepler had predicted in the 17th century that Mars would
have two moons, and in 1726, as unlikely a source as the writer Jonathan
Swift's Gulliver's Travels, speaking of the fictional Laputans, beings who
flew around the skies in flying cities, said:

They have likewise discovered two lesser stars or satellites, which revolve
about Mars; whereof the innermost is distant from the centre of the primary
planet exactly three of the diameters, and the outermost five; the former
revolves in the space of ten hours, and the latter in twenty-one and a half;
so that the squares of their periodical times are very near the same
proportion with the cubes of their distance from the centre of Mars; which
evidently shows them to be governed by the same law of gravitation, that
influences the other heavenly bodies.

He was amazingly accurate, as Asaph Hall found when he finally discovered the
two moons of Mars in 1877. What was astonishing was that the moons hadn't
been discovered sooner. Soon everyone was seeing them, even with less
powerful telescopes than Hall's.

That same year marked the Mars observations of the Italian astronomer
Giovanni Schiaparelli. His excellent vision, combined with an 8.6-inch Merz
refractor telescope, enabled him to see details that had been previously
hidden. The maps that he made at the time showed unusual linear features that
he, like Secchi, called "canali". His intended meaning was "channels", by
which he meant rivers, but the similarity of the word to the word "canals",
with its meaning of artificially constructed waterways, seized the popular
imagination. (Many astronomers never saw the canals. Perhaps Secchi and
Schiaparelli had been visiting the Italian city of Venice, whose very streets
were canals?)

Seeing the canals was contagious, though. Soon other astronomers were seeing
them, and more. Camille Flammarion believed he saw canals and yellowish-red
vegetation, and in 1891 William Henry Pickering claimed not only to see
canals, but to be able to count lakes on Mars from his observatory in the
Peruvian Andes Mountains. However, many astronomers could still see no canals
at all, even with the best telescopes.

In 1894, Percival Lowell, not an astronomer, but a man from a family that had
gained its wealth in the textile industry, was convinced by William Pickering
to finance the construction of an observatory in Arizona for the purpose of
viewing Mars at its coming opposition in October of that year. Lowell,
however, was determined to be more than merely a patron. He had been
interested in astronomy since childhood, and he soon had taken control of the
project. Flagstaff was chosen as a site for the observatory, and the
observations of Mars began in the late summer. The first disappointment came
when Pickering determined that the light reflected from the dark areas was
not polarized, which meant that these areas were not water. Lowell embraced
the idea that they must then be vegetation and that the Martians had
constructed the vast canal systems to funnel water from the poles for
irrigation. Lowell also believed that Mars had a temperate climate.

In the popular press and in the minds of the public, the question of life on
Mars was a seed that grew into an obsession. 1897 saw the publication of
writer H.G. Well's fictional War of the Worlds, in which the Martians, after
watching Earth for years, decide to come and take Earth for themselves. A
bubble of hype about life on Mars began to grow.

For the opposition of Mars, in 1907, Lowell sent his assistant E. C. Slipher
and Amherst College professor David Peck Todd to Alianza, Chile, to
photograph the planet with Amherst's 18-inch refractor, which had been
shipped to South America specifically for that purpose. Some of Slipher's
13,000 images were alleged to have captured canals, but later examination of
the photos failed to bear this out.

The year 1918 was a landmark one in Mars fiction. That was the year that A
Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs was published. This was the first of
a series that he would publish over the next several decades. Burroughs'
Martians were not space travelers, however. His fantasy tales were about an
Earthman who mystically travels to Mars from an Arizona desert to find love
and adventure among the canals and the spiral cities populated by the
many-hued races of Martians.

In August, 1924, the idea of communicating with Mars reached fever
proportions because on August 23rd Mars and Earth would come to within 55.7
million kilometers of each other, their closest approach since 1804. It was
hoped by many that the Martians had powerful transmitters and would be trying
to contact Earth. The task on Earth would be to try to intercept those

Lowell's associate David Peck Todd, Professor of Astronomy at Amherst
College, asked the U.S. Government to turn off its high-powered transmitters
for five minutes before each hour to give him "silent periods" in which to
listen for signals during the close transit with Mars from August 21 to
August 23rd. The military responded by ordering all military stations to
monitor and report any unusual signals, but didn't cut back normal
transmissions. Professor Todd also requested that all radio stations maintain
a five minute silence each hour over a two day period, but only WRC in
Washington, DC cooperated. During these "silent periods" Todd used a receiver
tuned to a wavelength between 5 and 6 kilometers to record any signals coming
through, not realizing that signals of such long wavelength would not
penetrate Earth's atmosphere, but would have been reflected back into space.
Todd received only a jumble of dots and dashes whose source was never

Over the next three decades, interest in Mars was pushed into the background
by that curious human economic phenomenon known as the Great Depression, and
then by that horrendous expression of humans' violent nature that was called
World War II.

There were discoveries made, however, such as the fact that there were only
minute quantities of water vapor in the Martian atmosphere and that its
atmosphere was mostly carbon dioxide, with practically no detectable oxygen.
The ice caps were thought to be water ice, but most astronomers felt that
liquid water could not exist on Mars because of the extremely low air
pressure, which would cause it to boil away even at low temperatures. The
changing colored areas were theorized to be gigantic dust storms, not
vegetation. The canals vanished from the images seen through the telescopes
as mysteriously as they had appeared.

There was, however, a brief resurgence of public interest in Mars in 1938
when a radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds by Orson Welles was
aired. Because of the news-broadcast style of the presentation, many humans
believed that it was true, that Martians were invading the Earth, and they

One outcome of the violent human war of that time was the development of the
rocket engine. This engine would, over the next decades, allow humans to
develop a space technology that would let them learn more about Mars than
they had learned in all of the centuries of observation that had gone before.
More about that in The Martians, Part 2.





� Layout Copyright 1998 Adam Finzel - Articles are copyright of the authors