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Why Did So Many People Once Believe That Mars Had Intelligent Life?

Margaret Lipman
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Victorian era was a period of great scientific discovery and technological progress, including in the field of astronomy. However, alongside the many discoveries and breakthroughs, errors and misconceptions sometimes occurred. For example, a small translation mistake inadvertently led to the widespread belief that Mars was home to intelligent life.

This misunderstanding emerged in 1877 when Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed what he thought were channels on the surface of Mars and referred to them as canali. As opposed to the literal translation of this Italian word, which simply refers to trenches, marks, or grooves, canali was mistranslated as “canals” (referring to artificial waterways) in English publications.

This error had far-reaching consequences, such as inspiring American businessman and astronomer Percival Lowell to build an observatory in Arizona with the goal of observing Mars more closely. Between 1894 and 1895, Lowell drew extensive maps charting the “canals” and came to believe that some form of intelligent life had been involved in their construction.

Despite facing some skepticism from the scientific community, Lowell’s theory of life on Mars gained popularity and in 1906, he published the book Mars and Its Canals. In this work, Lowell celebrated the canals as a feat of engineering and suggested that they were devised by Martians to transport water from Mars’ polar ice caps to its dry plateaus.

Unsurprisingly, as telescopes became more advanced, other astronomers strongly disputed the existence of man-made canals and Lowell’s theory fell out of fashion. In 1907, British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace criticized Lowell’s work and argued that the use of spectroscopic analysis had demonstrated there was no water in Mars’ atmosphere. In the 1970s, NASA’s Viking program conclusively revealed the surface of Mars to be an arid, cratered environment.

Besides the translation error, there is another reason why Lowell could be excused for his conviction that there were canals on Mars. During the late 1800s, when Schiaparelli and Lowell conducted their observations, they did so without the help of photography. This meant a lengthy process involving hours glued to the telescope waiting for a moment of calm air to capture a clear image, and then rendering their observations into drawings.

The so-called “canals” are now recognized as optical illusions. NASA has stated that “the network of crisscrossing lines covering the surface of Mars was only a product of the human tendency to see patterns, even when patterns do not exist. When looking at a faint group of dark smudges, the eye tends to connect them with straight lines.”

Out-of-this-world facts about Mars:

  • Mars is commonly referred to as the “Red Planet” due to the large amounts of iron oxide found on its surface.

  • Mars is home to the largest volcano in the solar system. Known as Olympus Mons, it is around 16 miles (25 km) high, which is roughly three times the height of Mount Everest.

  • Mars is known for its gigantic dust storms that can encircle the entire planet and last for weeks or even months.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman , Writer and editor
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.

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Margaret Lipman

Margaret Lipman

Writer and editor

With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
Learn more
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