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Not the first time September 5, 2010

Posted by Simon in Uncategorized.

ALH84001 wasn’t the start of the debate about life on Mars. I thought it would add some perspective to the debate if we take a brief look at some of the other Martian life controversies:

In 1907, Scientific American published a review of the book “Mars and Its Canals” by the astronomer Percival Lowell. They discuss his findings on vegetation, canals, and ultimately intelligent life on the planet.

I have to admit I wasn’t aware of the extent of Lowell’s Martian research – I thought he just imagined some lines on Mars when looking through his telescope, assumed they were canals and speculated from there. It seems like he was a bit more thorough than that, although it’s sobering to realise how wrong it all is, especially when you read things like:

Prof. Lowell devotes an entire chapter to the photographing of the canals by Lampland in 1903, a feat for which the photographer deserves all praise, inasmuch as it disposes forever of any theory based upon the supposition that the canals are optical illusions induced by eye-strain or the like.

Emphasis mine – it would be enlightening to find those photographs, to see what the whole canal thing was all about, but they seem to have disappeared.

The two Viking landers in 1976 performed experiments to test for the presence of life, but returned negative results. There’s always been a little bit of debate about how conclusive those results really were, and now new research has thrown fresh doubt on them.

The common thread (if there is one) among all these Martian controversies is that there’s some piece of data that can be interpreted several different ways, and the debate is about what’s the most logical way to interpret it. So suggesting that a piece of data supports the idea of life on Mars might not be something that be proven one way or another, but it might not be the most likely interpretation.



1. Erin - September 12, 2010

Hey Simon – great post! I had some idea that talks about the possibility of life on Mars was happening around the time of HG Wells, when he wrote ‘The War of the Worlds’… it was published in 1898 from memory. He certainly talks about vegetation on Mars, and I vaguely recall something about canals. It was fiction, of course, but Mr. Wells was a scientist himself, a biologist I think, and he brought ‘real’ science into his stories. Maybe looking him or the book up you could find more info on canals etc.?

But yes – the interpretation of observations is very key with astronomy I think.

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