Mars in popular culture
I wrote this post in September 2015 when there was great excitement for the possible discovery of flowing water on the martian surface. The mentioned study was updated in 2017 and can be found here: Recurring Martian Streaks: Flowing Sand, Not Water?
Right now, in September 2021, the Ingenuity helicopter is sending new images from the surface.
*It’s interesting to think ***how fast our understanding of Mars is changing.
Mars in popular culture
How has our perception of astronomy changed through the centuries? How did great scientists communicate their discoveries?
And how did they explain their findings to the general public?
Did politics, religion, and gender influence their argumentations? And how did the media and the public change?
Nowadays, it’s easy to get information from traditional and new media. Fortunately, NASA press releases and scientific and general journals are easily accessible through the internet.
The recent discovery of liquid water on Mars became viral on Facebook and Twitter, and it was immediately published in every newspaper in the world.
Mars has been part of our imagination for centuries. Thanks to scientists like Lowell and Schiaparelli, who wrote several articles and books, the Red Planet became a popular discussion argument. Welles narrated the invasion from Mars, and finally, in recent days, Mars has been the target of rover missions, and it will be the target for future human-crewed missions.
Back to the future
And, now, what is that Schiaparelli has seen on Mars? Many readers will probably at once answer “canals”, from the fame of “Schiaparelli’s canals” has become widespread, and that very word has, perhaps, done as much as anything to foster incredulity in regard to these discoveries. It is true that Schiaparelli himself suggested the name canals to describe the strange lines that he found traversing the continents of Mars, and forming, as it were, a network of intercommunication between its seas; but, at the same time, he indicated that that name was simply to be taken, for lack of a better, as descriptive of their general appearance, and not as implying that they were canals in our sense of the word. Of course, the term was at once restricted, in popular acceptations, to its terrestrial sense, and there have not been wanting speculations about the engineers who constructed those wonderful canals on Mars!
Garrett P. Serviss, Popular Science, May 1890, page 46
Everything started with Schiaparelli. The Italian scientist studied astronomy in Berlin at one of the most vibrant universities during the 1800s. His mentor in Berlin was Johann Franz Encke, who studied mathematics and astronomy in Gottingen under Carl Friedrich Gauss.
Schiaparelli worked on binary stars, discovered an asteroid, and demonstrated that Perseid and Leonid meteor showers were associated with comets.
But it’s when he “discovered” canals on Mars that he opened a whole new scenario for science and fiction. Its book, “La vita su Marte” (Life on Mars), summarized all his observations and speculations on the argument.
First observations made by Schiaparelli influenced the work of Lowell, who spent his life trying to map those mysterious structures he observed on the surface of Mars.
Of course, there are no canals on Mars. Today, we are pretty sure that no alien engineer built such structures. But this was true even back in the 1890s! Even if Schiaparelli himself didn’t mean canal in “our sense of the word,” and the astronomer Garrett P. Serviss wrote an excellent explanation about this question, Mars canals influenced popular culture and science fiction for years.
In 1898, Martians tried to escape their dying planet by invading Earth, but, fortunately, it was just a book by H. G. Wells.
A radio adaptation by Orson Welles in 1938 caused panic among spectators in New York. People ran into the streets and believed that little aliens from the Red Planet landed on the Earth to stay.
Orson Welles said that nobody connected to the broadcast thought that there would have been such a reaction among the public.
Science is a slow process, it goes by tiny steps, and new theories need time to be accepted by the general public.
This aspect hasn’t changed since the end of the 1800s. Of course, Lowell was wrong, but his work gave the input for an extraordinary and romantic journey.
Epilogue: Water on Pyroeis
We know that liquid water is fundamental for life. Life needs a source of energy, like the sun, nutrients, and finally, liquid water.
We have always been wondering about the presence of water on Mars. From our missions to the red planet, we know that Mars was warmer and covered with oceans and rivers millions of years ago. The particular geology of the surface and the presence of some rocks that form only in the presence of liquid water suggest this hypothesis. What happened then? Water evaporated and went into space due to a thinner atmosphere and less gravity: Mars is smaller than the Earth, and size matters.
We already know that significant water deposits are trapped in the ice caps at the north and south poles of the planet. These deposits are 3 kilometers tick and, if melted, could cover the surface with 5 meters of flowing water.
The news that we were waiting for finally arrived, NASA confirmed the presence of liquid water.
The research was published on Nature Geoscience on the 28 of September. The High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) took photos of dark streaks that appear only when the temperature is warmer and disappear during cold weather.
The spectral analysis conducted by the project researchers showed that these streaks are caused by salty liquid water. Something similar to what happens on our planet when we throw salt on icy roads during winter.
This research could give us the chance to understand Mars geology better, make us wonder about the presence of more water under the surface, and give us the hope of finding traces of life.
Recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars. These narrow, dark streaks have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Credits: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Spectral evidence for hydrated salts in recurring slope lineae on Mars — Nature Geoscience
Water on Mars: Exploration & Evidence — Space.com