Friday, October 9, 2009

October 9, 1909 - Life on Mars

100 Years Ago: From The Rensselaer Eagle [NY 41 Rensselaer 93-32173].

No Life On Mars?

The nearness of the planet Mars to the earth has again made acute the question of whether or not it is inhabited. The most staggering blow to the theories of life on Mars is the report of the Lick observatory that no water vapor exists in the Martian atmosphere. Professor Percival Lowell, who is the most prominent advocate of the life on Mars theory, had already stated that he found evidences of both water vapor and oxygen. To test the matter definitely the Lick observatory astronomers placed their instruments on the top of Mount Whitney, which is not only one of the highest peaks on the continent, but has the added advantage of an exceedingly dry atmosphere. Thus the amount of water vapor in our own atmosphere was reduced to the lowest possible point. Comparative spectroscopic observations were made of Mars and the moon. The results, according to the Lick scientists, showed practically the same results from both bodies. As the moon is admitted to be without water vapor, this would seem to settle the question.

Even admitting the correctness of their findings, however, the question is not entirely decided. The so called Martian canals, with their waxing and waning lines, supposed to be due to the annual growth and disappearance of vegetation, have yet to be explained. As in the case of the polar controversy, science will not render her verdict until the evidence is all in.

The "polar controversy" referred to whether Frederick Cook or Robert Peary first reached the geographic North Pole. In 1910, Peary said Cook faked it in 1908 - Peary probably got within 5 miles in 1909. ("The North Pole: its discovery in 1909 under the auspices of the Peary Arctic Club".) Ken Burns' "National Parks" mentioned Cook's 1906 false claim of reaching the top of Mt. McKinley (video: "Denali: The First Climbers").

The Victorians believed Mars was inhabited (see A Mars Timeline - an Italian astronomer observed "channels" in the 1870's - mistranslated as "canals", this suggested deliberate construction). Mars was still a hot topic in the early 1900's, when astronomer Percival Lowell addressed the issues of "Mars and its Canals" and "Mars as the Abode of Life". Read more about the Lick Observatory's 1909 Mars observations at "To Climb the Highest Mountain" (History of Astronomy, V.20, NO.2/61/JUN, P. 77, 1989).

In the popular culture, H.G. Wells had serialized "The War of the Worlds" in 1898. "Edison's Conquest of Mars" by Garrett P. Serviss was also from 1898. Fiction in 1909 included "Zarlah the Martian" by R. Norman Grisewood and "Mirrikh: or, A woman from Mars" by Francis Worcester Doughty.

One hundred years later, we're still unraveling the mysteries of Mars and the Moon, observing deposits of ice on Mars (New York Times, 9/28/2009: Red Planet May Be Better Known as the Wet One) and crashing a probe on the moon (Science Daily: Rocket Smash Could Find Moon’s Water Ice, Expert Says).

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