The Great Martian Controversy Continued
From: To Mars Via The Moon
"As the result of very long continued and systematic observation of the
lines on Mars, together with carefully plotting them down on a globe, it
was found that every line was continuous, uniform in width, and went
straight from one definite point to another, not one breaking off in
open space. Moreover, on being tested, nearly all were found to be arcs
of great circles, and therefore the shortest possible lines which could
connect any two points on a sphere. This fact strongly supports the idea
that they are not natural but artificial formations. For a long time the
lines were only seen on the red, or lighter, parts of the planet, but in
1892 an expedition was sent from Harvard Observatory to Arequipa, in
Peru, for the purpose of observing the planet under very favourable
conditions, and this resulted in important discoveries. Professor W.H.
Pickering, who accompanied the expedition, was fortunate enough to
observe that the canal lines extended over the dark or blue-green
portions of the disc; and later observations have proved that this is
the case all over the planet, and the lines are visible from pole to
"These observations also led Professor Pickering to the important
conclusion that all the dark areas were covered with vegetation, and
that the bright or red areas were deserts, the colour of the latter
being exactly that of our deserts when viewed from a great distance.
Herschel's idea had been that the red areas were land covered with
vegetation of a red colour, and that the dark areas were seas.
"It was, however, now quite clear that permanent lines in such numbers
and length could not exist in seas; and other observations have
demonstrated that, instead of appearing smooth and uniform as water
would, these areas are full of detail and variations, and that they pass
through all the changes of colour, according to seasons, that land
covered with vegetation does upon our earth. In the winter time, when
the land is fallow, it appears brown or chocolate colour; in the spring,
the time of early vegetation, it becomes a pale blue-green tint; as the
season advances the blue-green becomes darker; whilst in the autumn it
tends to a light brown, and at length changes into chocolate colour in
the winter. This has been carefully noted time after time when the
planet has been in a position to be observed; and the same sequence of
change-which can only be associated with vegetation-has always
"It may, therefore, now be accepted as a proved fact that the dark areas
are land upon which vegetation grows, ripens, and dies away according to
the seasons of the Martian year.
"Professor Pickering also made another discovery, viz. a large number of
isolated, round, darkish spots, most of which occurred where canal lines
joined or crossed each other. Some of these had been seen much earlier
by other observers, but Professor Pickering was the first to see them in
large numbers and call attention to them. He termed them 'lakes,' but
later discoveries from continued observation showed that they were not
water, and they were then given the name of 'oases.' Some are seventy or
eighty miles in diameter, and nearly two hundred are now marked on the
maps. They mostly occur in certain definite positions-in the point
where single canals join or cross each other, or, in the case of double
canals, between the two lines. It has been noted that they undergo the
same seasonal changes as the dark areas do, but only as regards the
outer portion of the circle, which gradually fades away in the latter
part of the Martian year; whilst the central portion becomes fainter but
does not disappear.
"Of course it was at once declared that these oases were illusions which
would naturally be seen where two lines crossed each other and were
viewed from a great distance. But they only occur in some cases at such
crossings, and there are many junctions without any oases. Moreover,
they are also seen between the double canals where there are no
junctions nor anything which could give rise to illusion.
"At Flagstaff Observatory it was also noted that the canal lines
themselves underwent seasonal changes. Those viewed during the winter
season were always so faint as to be scarcely discernible, but at the
period when vegetation would naturally begin to grow they became more
easily visible, and still more distinct as the season advanced.
"Then Professor Lowell announced his great conception, which has given
rise to so much controversy, and has also been much misunderstood and
"Briefly, his conclusions were as follows:-'Science teaches that a
small planet will become cool and develop life much sooner than a large
one. Similarly a small iron casting will become cool in a few days,
whilst a large one will be many weeks or even months in cooling. A small
planet will also develop more rapidly, and reach its final stage when it
will be incapable of supporting life, very long before a larger planet
like our earth will have reached that stage. Applying this to Mars, a
much smaller planet than our earth, it is scientifically reasoned that
Mars has passed through nearly all its stages and is approaching its
last. It has lost much of its atmosphere, all its large bodies of water,
such as oceans or seas, and, as regards the land, that has become
levelled by erosion, and about five-eighths of the whole area has become
"'Science also shows that in such circumstances rain would cease to fall
over the larger part of the planet, but the water vapour in the air
would be carried by natural circulatory currents of air to the polar
regions, and there deposited in the form of snow or hoarfrost, thus
forming a large snow-cap at the north pole in one season of the year,
and a still larger snow-cap at the south pole in the opposite portion of
"'These snow-caps would begin to melt in the spring as soon as the tilt
of the planet brought the pole to the position where the sun would take
effect, and would continue during the early summer. As there is no
permanent glaciation on a planet which has lost its water, the snow-cap
would melt to a very large extent, and the resultant water must go
"'The inhabitants of the planet could not exist without water, and
their land would become entirely desert unless supplied with moisture.
It will, therefore, be seen that the only thing possible, as a means of
self-preservation, would be for them to make channels to carry the water
in the most economical way from the poles to the parts where it was
needed. Unless they found a means of doing this death stared them in the
face. What greater incentive could there be!'
"This is what Professor Lowell is convinced has actually been
accomplished upon Mars, with the result that there is a network of
canals all over the planet by which water is conveyed from each pole and
carried across from one hemisphere into the other. The lines seen show
where the canals are, but not the canals themselves, because they are
too narrow to be seen. The lines really are broad bands of vegetation
irrigated by the canals which run through them, hence the seasonal
changes which have been noted in their colour.
"All this seems very reasonable, deduced as it is from scientific fact
and from the many different things which have actually been seen and
confirmed by many thousands of observations, but it has met with the
most bitter opposition on the part of many astronomers, both
professional and amateur. Theory after theory has been brought forward
with the object of disproving the existence of the canal lines; some of
these, such as eye-strain, diplopia, bad focussing, illusion, and
imagination, have already been mentioned.
"Proofs of the reality of the lines having become too strong for most of
the objectors, they then turned their endeavours to the overthrowing of
the theory that the lines were canals, suggesting that they were all of
"Amongst these suggestions it was stated they were edges of shadings,
natural growths of long lines of trees and vegetation, cracks in the
surface of the planet or foldings caused by contraction, trap-dykes,
&c., but not one of these suggestions will bear investigation. I have
already pointed out the impossibility of shadings having straight edges
for thousands of miles in so many hundreds of cases. It is equally
impossible to imagine natural growths of trees and vegetation in bands
of uniform width and thousands of miles long, and nearly all forming
arcs of great circles.
"They cannot be cracks, for they are of uniform width throughout their
length, and always run direct from one definite point to another, no
matter how distant apart they may be.
"Cracks, such as we see on the moon, though sometimes straight, are
usually wide near the centre of disturbance which caused them, and
narrow off to a fine point, and often end anywhere out in open space;
moreover, they are usually very irregular in width, and take a zig-zag
course instead of a straight one. This, as I have said, is not the case
with a single canal line on Mars. If they were cracks, some at least
would be irregular and end in open space. The same remarks apply in the
case of foldings or ridges.
"The oases, once declared to be illusions, were then said to be large
openings in the soil at the junctions of the cracks; or they might be
craters, and so on. But this does not account for the appearance of the
oases between twin canals, or the systematic manner in which the canals
effect a junction with the oases. Again, therefore, the theory fails to
fit the known circumstances of the case.
"Dr. A.R. Wallace rather favours the idea of natural cracks or faults in
the surface of the planet; and suggests that the outer crust of Mars may
be a crystalline or similar formation which would lend itself to the
production of numerous cracks in the surface. He points to a few cracks
and faults in the earth's surface, all of small size, as confirming this
idea; but the cases he adduces only seem to prove that there is on our
earth absolutely no natural formation which can in any way properly be
compared with the lines seen on Mars. Moreover, there seems to me no
ground whatever, beyond the needs of the theory, for supposing that the
crust of Mars is of a crystalline nature, or such as would predispose to
the formation of cracks. On the contrary, all the evidence is against
it-the existence of vegetation in some parts, the general appearance of
the red portion, and the large clouds of sand which have been observed,
all being indicative of a sandy formation, in the red portion at least.
"The theory also fails to take into consideration the most important
point of all, viz. that every canal runs direct from one definite point
to another, perhaps over two thousand miles distant. In very many cases
numerous lines connect with one small area, or even with one point. The
Lucus Ascraeus has no less than seventeen of these canals connecting with
it, and appears to be a kind of Martian Clapham Junction.
"The deserts on Mars serve the same purpose as our seas, as lines of
communication may be established anywhere across them. A map of Mars,
showing the canals converging towards some one part, bears a great
resemblance to our maps showing the courses taken by vessels from
different parts all converging upon one seaport.
"Much has also been said about the widths of the canals as rendering
them impossible of construction, so let us consider how wide they are.
"The lines seen vary from two or three miles up to nearly thirty miles
in width; but there are only one or two of the latter, and the majority
are five to ten miles wide. Notwithstanding Professor Lowell's repeated
statements that they represent bands of vegetation, these widths are
often referred to as the widths of his canals. I have frequently seen
them described as 'fifty miles,' a 'hundred miles,' and even as
'hundreds of miles' wide. These exaggerations usually appear in
newspapers and journals, and evidently arise from insufficient knowledge
on the part of the writers.
"Owing to the small gravitation upon Mars, the work of digging canals
would be extremely easy upon that planet (even assuming the Martians to
be without machinery) as compared with the same work on our earth; but
there is neither necessity nor reason for the construction of such
enormously wide canals as those mentioned. Moreover, it seems to me that
very wide canals would defeat the object for which they were
constructed; and Professor Lowell does not regard the widest lines as
being canals. They may be remains of natural channels or arms of the
seas, as they do not run so straight as the canal lines proper.
"Our people," I remarked, "have argued both against the possibility of
constructing such canals and of forcing water along them, because, as
they say, none of our engineers would be able to accomplish such work. I
certainly have more confidence in the skill and capabilities of our
engineers, and doubt not that if they were required to solve a similar
problem they would overcome all difficulties and carry out the work
"I'm with you there, mon!" exclaimed M'Allister.
"I may remind you," I proceeded, "that when steam navigation was first
mooted, it was confidently asserted that no steamship would ever succeed
in crossing the Atlantic Ocean, and I can remember when it was learnedly
demonstrated that it would be quite impossible to construct a canal
across the Isthmus of Suez! How small the prophets must have felt when
the work was accomplished!
"I am afraid it is usual to take a very limited view of all such
matters, and we judge of them entirely from what we know ourselves,
never looking ahead, as it is considered unscientific to go beyond our
own knowledge. Because something may be quite impossible to us, it does
not follow that it is impossible to more advanced people.
"Think how many great scientific facts which are quite commonplace at
the present time were unknown and undreamed of even so recently as our
grandfathers' time! Who then can forecast what may be possible five
hundred years, or even a century hence; and who will be bold enough to
fix a limit to the possibilities of science! I freely admit I am an
optimist in these matters."
"I think, Professor," said John, "that your view is really the more
scientific of the two. While it may not be possible accurately to
forecast all the facts, intelligent anticipations may logically be
formed from a survey of our own past history."
Proceeding, I then remarked, that "Another discovery made at Flagstaff
Observatory was that at the ends of certain canals, where they joined
the dark areas, were small V-shaped dark markings which Professor Lowell
has termed carets. From their occurrence in these positions only, and
from his observations of the peculiar and extremely systematic manner in
which the canals, especially the double ones, run into the carets, he
has concluded that they must serve some special and important purpose.
"We have been told upon high authority that the carets are illusions,
and could not possibly be seen, as the planet is so distant from us. But
the fact remains that they have frequently been seen and drawn; they
always appear the same, and are never seen except in connection with
canals which join dark areas. These dark areas, I may say, are believed
to be the beds of ancient seas, from which the water has long since
"In connection with all these disputed lines and markings it has often
been urged that though they are seen through comparatively small
telescopes they are not seen when a very large instrument is used; and
it has also been said that observers, knowing what they wished to see,
simply imagined they did see it. We have, however, abundant proof that
both these arguments are unreliable and incorrect.
"It is a well-known fact that when a faint object has been once seen
through a telescope, others are able to see it through a smaller
instrument. This was the case with the satellites of Mars, which have
been seen with much smaller instruments than that used to discover them.
"The fact that such objects are really seen is proved by the observer
marking them on his drawing in their correct position, although they may
have moved from the point at which they were originally seen.
"I will give you an illustration of the ease with which it is possible
to overlook something that should be clearly visible to you, yet it is
not seen by you until your attention is called to it by some one else.
Almost every one has had some such experience:-
"You may have on the front of your coat a small stain, or grease-spot,
in a position where you could plainly see it, yet might wear the coat
for days or even weeks in complete unconsciousness of the existence of
the stain until some one pointed it out to you. After that you cannot
look at the coat without seeing the stain, and it becomes so
persistently obtrusive that you are compelled to have it removed. There
is, however, no imagination about your seeing the mark."
John here said to me: "Professor, I noticed you said that many who do
not believe in the actuality of the lines and markings on Mars
frequently refer to the fact that, while they are stated to be seen
through small telescopes, they are quite invisible through a very large
instrument, and they regard this as proving that the lines or markings
do not exist. Is there not something in this argument?"
"Well, John," I replied, "the argument sounds not only plausible, but
reasonable, and inexperienced persons might use the argument, believing
it to be a sound and good one. I must, however, confess that I have
been surprised to see this argument used by persons who must surely know
that there is no weight in it at all.
"It is well known to all practical observers, and indeed to all who have
studied optical matters, that, for several reasons, very large
telescopes are quite unsuited for the observation of fine planetary
"The real advantage of these enormous instruments lies in their great
'light-grasp,' which enables observers to see very faint points of
light, such as small satellites of planets, faint stars, double stars,
distant comets, or nebulae, which could not be seen with a smaller
instrument necessarily having less 'light grasp.' Yet this very excess
of light, which is the great advantage of a large instrument, is one of
the things that spoils the definition of faint planetary details; it
drowns them all out, or 'breaks them up.'
"Again, these large instruments are much more liable than smaller ones
to what is termed 'chromatic' and 'spherical' aberration; and this also
is detrimental to definition. No very large refractor is entirely free
from these defects.
"Another objection is that, in using such large and long-focussed
instruments, a much higher power must necessarily be employed than in
the case of smaller instruments. This high power magnifies all the
little movements and disturbances in our atmosphere to exactly the same
extent as it magnifies the object looked at, with the result that these
disturbances blur out all fine detail. The canal lines on Mars could
never be seen in such circumstances. If the object were looked at
through a smaller instrument, with lower power, it might be fairly well
seen, for the atmospheric disturbances would not be magnified to such
an extent as to spoil definition.
"There are very few nights in the year when these immense instruments
can be used to advantage on the planets, whilst a smaller instrument
might define well three or four nights out of every six. It is on record
that the user of Lord Rosse's great reflector stated that there were
only about three nights in the year when its best definition could be
obtained; and its use has produced very meagre results, compared with
what had been anticipated.
"It is also almost universally recognised that in using these great
instruments, whether for photography or for the visual observation of
fine detail, it is absolutely necessary to stop down the aperture to a
very large extent, by reducing it to about 12 inches in diameter or even
less. The big telescope is thus really converted into a small one of
"There is, in addition, the acknowledged fact that nearly every
discovery of new detail on planets has been made with a comparatively
small telescope, although the same objects may have been under constant
observation for years with big telescopes. The new detail was never
noticed until after it had been seen with a smaller instrument, and
perhaps only then when atmospheric conditions were unusually good.
"As an instance, I may mention that the faint 'crape ring' of Saturn was
seen by Dawes when using an 8-inch aperture to his telescope; yet it had
never been discovered with the large instruments, although the planet is
one that is under constant observation when in a position to be seen.
"I could give innumerable instances of similar cases, but enough has
been said to show that because some object cannot be seen in a very
large telescope, it is no proof at all that the object does not exist.
* * * * *
"Amid the chaos of varied, and often self-contradictory, theories
respecting Mars-some abandoned by their own authors; others in which
facts and conditions had to be assumed for which there was not only no
evidence, but actual disproof by many recorded observations-Professor
Lowell's conceptions stand out clearly and boldly.
"They are all founded on the results of prolonged and systematic work in
the observation of the planet, not only by himself but by numerous
colleagues-work in which many of his critics have had little or no
experience under favourable conditions. His conceptions fit in with
observed facts with all the accuracy of the pieces in a child's picture
puzzle; whilst his logical deductions are supported and enhanced by his
wide knowledge of physical science and planetology.
"Yet, as I have both heard and read, his views and discoveries have been
described as 'sensational,' 'fanciful,' 'fairy tales,' and by other
terms which I would rather not quote.
"Underlying some of these objections there seems to be an idea that some
reason must be found for opposing anything and everything which would
tend to indicate the possibility of intelligent life existing upon any
other planet than the earth; although it is difficult to understand why
such a possibility should be so abhorrent. It is a view that does not
commend itself to me, but I need not say more on that point.
"Nicola Tesla, the great electrician, is, however, convinced of the
existence of life upon Mars, and he has expressed in very emphatic terms
his opinion of the opposite view, which, however, I refrain from
quoting. He says that Mars must have passed through all terrestrial
changes and conditions, and that the whole arrangement of the canals, as
depicted by Professor Lowell, would seem to be artificially designed. He
then goes on to state that he has discovered electrical disturbances on
the earth which must have come from Mars and no other planet.
"In the treatment he has received from some of his smaller critics
(whose vehemence is usually in inverse proportion to their knowledge of
his work and writings) Professor Lowell has had an experience similar to
that of many other observers who have done good work.
"If an observer be blessed with the happy combination of good eyesight,
a good instrument, and favourable atmospheric conditions, and publishes
writings and drawings showing that he has seen something which has not
previously been observed, he at once becomes a target for captious
critics who seem to be under the impression that all astronomical
knowledge begins and ends with themselves, and that anything they cannot
see does not exist. It matters not that the observer attacked may have
given months to particular observations where his critics have only
spent a few hours: he is told that his drawings are incorrect and do not
represent the planet; that they may be works of art, but do not
represent facts; that he possesses a very vivid imagination, and so on.
This procedure may be persisted in until at last the victim either turns
and rends his critics or ceases to publish his drawings or records, to
the great loss of many others who take an intelligent interest in his
"Professor Lowell's telescope is over 32 feet in focal length, and has
an object glass of excellent quality 24 inches in diameter, the work of
the celebrated Alvan Clark. Thus, whilst not one of the giants, it is
not exactly what would be termed a small instrument, and few indeed of
the critics have anything approaching it in capacity, while none enjoys
the advantage of such ideal conditions in the situation of his
"I was therefore much amused in reading an effusion by one critic who,
in discussing the question of the canal lines, remarked that he could
not accept 'these one-man discoveries,' oblivious of the fact that they
are the discoveries of many observers. He then very naively gives the
illuminating information that his astronomical experience is confined to
the 'observation' of the moon for about six months, by the aid of a
1-1/4-inch hand-telescope! Surely, when confronted with a critic of
such vast experience and so wonderfully equipped, Professor Lowell must
retire discomfited from the field!"
At the conclusion of my remarks both John and M'Allister expressed their
thanks, saying that "Now they were informed as to the points on which
our scientists were not agreed, they would look forward with still
greater interest to our arrival at our destination, for they were as
anxious as I was to solve the mysteries of the red planet."
Next: We Are Mysteriously Prevented From Approaching Mars
Previous: The Discovery Of Lines Upon Mars-the Great Martian Controversy