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Moron Mars

02/03/2012

I have received comforting confirmation that I am not simply standing at the side of the road shouting at the traffic. Referring to my post about the loss of the Mars Climate Observer, a correspondent helpfully reminds me about the simple – yet hyooogely significant – translation error which began the whole “men from Mars” nonsense.

Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910) was an Italian senator, historian of science and astronomer. During 1877’s “Great Opposition” (the perihelion, when two planets are at their closest) with Mars, he took particular interest in the Red Planet, mapping and naming the “seas” and “continents” that he saw; so far, so uncontentious. He also referred to the “channels” that he observed. Unfortunately, the Italian word “canali” was mistranslated into English as “canals”, suggesting construction by a present or extinct civilisation. The English-speaking world’s obsession with this was led by the wealthy Bostonian, Percival Lowell, who developed Schiaparelli observations into an imaginative and elaborately detailed theory about a vanished civilisation. It would be unfair to put all the blame on Lowell, though, as Schiaparelli himself had postulated the existence of organic life:

Rather than true channels in a form familiar to us, we must imagine depressions in the soil that are not very deep, extended in a straight direction for thousands of miles, over a width of 100, 200 kilometres and maybe more. I have already pointed out that, in the absence of rain on Mars, these channels are probably the main mechanism by which the water (and with it organic life) can spread on the dry surface of the planet.

Although it was proved in 1894 that the Martian atmosphere contained neither water nor oxygen, Lowell wrote Mars in 1895 and H. G. Wells took the idea and gave us The War of the Worlds in 1897. In 1912, the American Civil War veteran Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the first in his series of Barsoom (his name for Mars) novels, introducing the American Civil War veteran (!) John Carter and a complex bestiary of fantastical beings. The madness continued well into the 20th century, of course, when Mariner 4 proved conclusively that the canals were merely an optical illusion. Still, the mistranslation of a single word spawned an entire sub-genre of fiction – and interplanetary paranoia!

Incidentally, John Carter of Mars will be appearing in cinemas next week, as Disney’s big ($250m) budget John Carter will mark the centenary of his first appearance:

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