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<   No. 1524   2007-03-30   >

Comic #1524

1 [caption]: ==Mythbusters== Martians
2 Jamie: It's time to bust the myth of the existence of Martians. In 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli observed features on Mars that he called canali, or channels.
3 Jamie: Percival Lowell interpreted these markings as artificial canals, and became obsessed with the idea of an alien civilisation on Mars.
3 [sound]: Riiing! {Adam reaches to answer the phone}
4 Adam: {holding out phone} It's for you. They say they're looking for someone who can help them establish control of Earth's media.

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Anyway, continuing Jamie's story, Percival Lowell published three books on Mars and the canals he thought he saw on its surface. These make an interesting study in the limits of human perception and wishful thinking, as virtually none of the features that Lowell identified on the surface of Mars and mapped in great detail over multiple observing sessions at his giant refracting telescope at Lowell Observatory in Arizona correspond to any actual features on Mars at all.

Although Lowell's obsession with Mars and the "canal craze" are now viewed as a quaint Victorian-era affectation, it was not until surprisingly recently that we finally put the nail in the coffin of the "advanced civilisations on Mars" theory. In fact, I remember growing up and learning that serious scientists speculated that there might well be plants, animals, and even intelligent creatures on Mars.

The question was open as late as 1976, when NASA's Viking 1 mission placed the first lander probe on to Mars. The first photos revealed a lifeless, rocky desert. I was hoping to see at least trees.

It's amazing how much progress science can make in a short time.


2017-02-08 Rerun commentary: When I was younger I always read Schiaparelli's last name and pronounced it in my head as "shappa-relli". I realised after listening to Carl Sagan talk about him in his TV series Cosmos, confirming it later by my growing understanding of the Italian language, that it's actually pronounced with a hard "ch" sound like a "k": "sk-yappa-relli" (or [skjapaˈrɛlːi] if you prefer IPA).

Although Carl Sagan led me astray on the pronunciation of Io, the moon of Jupiter. He always said it as "ee-o", when consensus seems to prefer "eye-o".

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