Channelling Martian Maps

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Channelling Martian Maps

"[W]e are inclined to believe them to be produced by an evolution of the planet, just as on the Earth we have the English Channel and the Channel of Mozambique. [..]

Their singular aspect, and their being drawn with absolute geometrical precision, as if they were the work of rule or compass, has led some to see in them the work of intelligent beings."
[Giovanni Schiaparelli]

Mars 1877-1878 Giovanni Schiaparelli

Mars Map 1890 Giovanni Schiaparelli

Particolari della superficie di Marte, 1890 Giovanni Schiaparelli

Boreal hemisphere of Mars 1886 Giovanni Schiaparelli

Hemispherum Martis Australe - Giovanni Schiaparelli

L'emisfero boreale di Marte fino al quarantesino grado di latitudine, 1888 Giovanni Schiaparelli

Particolari della superficie di Marte dalla quarta Memoria, 1883-1884 Giovanni Schiaparelli

Particolari della superficie di Marte dalla sesta Memoria, 1888 Giovanni Schiaparelli

Mappa Areographica Mars Map 1878 Giovanni Schiaparelli

Observations of Mars 1881.82 Giovanni Schiaparelli

Particolari della superficie di Marte dalla prima Memoria, 1878 Giovanni Schiaparelli

Observation 25 June 1880 (Giovanni Schiaparelli diary)

Mars 1873 - Étienne Léopold Trouvelot (Harvard)

Martian canals depicted by Percival Lowell 1914

If we skip past some of the early contributors to our knowledge about the planet Mars -- Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Brahe, Kepler, Maraldi, Huygens, Herschel, Schroeter and doubtless other astronomers, all sharing the common handicap of relatively poor visual equipment -- we arrive in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the telescope's quality of resolution had advanced sufficiently, allowing for observation (and therefore mapping) of the Martian landscape.

Chief among the early cartograhpers of Mars was Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910), an Italian astronomer who worked at Brera Observatory in Milan for more than thirty years. In the late 1870s he produced an audaciously detailed map of Mars for which he had devised a nomenclature system to identify the newly discovered features. His system drew upon his knowledge of classical mythology, Greek and the Bible and thereby anointed the planet with "a set of romantic and wistfully evocative names".

The myopic and colour blind Schiaparelli (neither of which, in all seriousness, hampered his renown as a meticulously observant astronomer) included in his map -- which he continued to augment all through the 1880s, and which served as the cartographic authority on the Martian landscape in planetary astronomy for two decades -- linear features that he saw criss-crossing the surface of Mars, which he referred to as 'canali'. This Italian word translates to English as either 'channels' or 'canals', and although Schiaparelli was implying the more naturalistic descriptor, 'channels', somehow 'canals' became the accepted terminology.

Whether or not there was any relationship between the construction of the Suez Canal at about the same time -- a decidedly artificial project -- and the way in which these martian canals added fuel to the romantic notion of there being intelligent lifeforms on Mars, is a matter for speculation. Nevertheless, and without going much further into the details, Schiaparelli inadvertently generated a most newsworthy phenomenon. Writings by the emphatic protagonist for the life on Mars idea, Percival Lowell (last picture above), were sufficiently noteworthy at the time to (apparently) provide inspiration for one of HG Wells' science fiction books.

Schiaparelli's (in)famous 'canali' turned out to be a kind of optical illusion caused by interactions between light, dust clouds that form in the martian atmosphere, the orbital location and background interference from the planet's surface itself. If a sketch is made of something that wasn't really there but you believed it to be there at the time, can you call the result abstract art I wonder? I guess so.

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