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Why People Believed There Was Intelligent Life on Mars

Updated on March 4, 2015

In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported seeing a network of canali on the surface of Mars. He thought the canali were depressions in the soil that extended for hundreds or thousands of miles. Schiaparelli never specified whether he thought they were natural or not. When his report was translated into English, canali meaning channels was mistranslated as canals, which are man-made. One American astronomer Percival Lowell was fascinated by the Martian lines and devoted much of his life to theorizing about them.

Percival Lowell and the Canals of Mars

The Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona welcomes about 80,000 visitors a year. The observatory was built by Percival Lowell on a 7,200 foot (2,195 meter) mountain peak he called Mars Hill. In 1894, he built a 24-inch refracting telescope. Thirty six years later another American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered what is now the dwarf planet Pluto at the observatory.

Lowell, who came from a wealthy Boston family, spent his time studying the vast network of canals on Mars and writing the books Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908). He believed Mars was once covered with vegetation but had become desert. Intelligent beings living on Mars built the system of canals in an attempt to save their planet by moving water from the ice caps in the polar regions to other areas.

Most other astronomers weren't able to see the canals. In 1907, Alfred Russel Wallace refuted Lowell's claims in a book called Is Mars Habitable? If the name sounds familiar, it's because it was Wallace who discovered evolution by natural selection around the same time as Charles Darwin. In the book, Wallace quotes astronomy historian Agnes Clerke who called the irrigation system as imagined by Lowell "hopelessly unworkable." There simply wasn't enough melting snow and ice. He also disputed Lowell's claim that Mars had a climate similar to that of the south of England despite being much further than the sun.

The NASA Mariner missions to Mars in the 1960s firmly put an end to speculation about the existence of canals on Mars. However, Lowell may have been a reason invasions and visitations from Mars became so common in popular culture.

Percival Lowell's drawings of the network of canals on Mars
Percival Lowell's drawings of the network of canals on Mars

War of the Worlds

When aliens invaded Earth on October 30, 1938 they were from Mars. The series of news bulletins announcing the invasion was a drama by Orson Welles. Some people turning their radio dials missed the announcement that it was a drama and thought a real martian invasion was occurring. Despite claims of a mass panic, an article in Slate The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic insists:

The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast.

Perhaps by 1938, most people had accepted that our neighboring planet was devoid of intelligent life. The Orson Welles radio play was based on the 1897 book War of the World's by H.G. Wells. The book has two parts The Coming of the Martians and The Earth under the Martians. The narrator sees the Martians destroying southern England using heat-rays and chemical weapons from cylindrical spaceships.

The Martian technology that wreaked havoc on Earth in War of the Worlds
The Martian technology that wreaked havoc on Earth in War of the Worlds
Uncle Martin looked nothing like a little green man
Uncle Martin looked nothing like a little green man

My Favorite Martian

A more innocuous Martian encounter was depicted in the 1963 show My Favorite Martian. By this point, it was known Mars was a barren planet. The show starred Ray Walston (the Martian) and Bill Bixby. The human-looking Martian's spaceship crash landed near Los Angeles. The crash was seen by a newspaper reporter who agrees to hide the alien while he attempts to return home. He pretends the martian is his Uncle Martin. Uncle Martin has two retractable antennae on his head. He can read minds, levitate objects and become invisible. The show ended in 1966.

Perhaps a meteorite from Mars brought life to Earth
Perhaps a meteorite from Mars brought life to Earth

Maybe We Are Martians

Some scientists think the ingredients for life on Earth may have come from Mars. According to this idea, Earth once had too much water for life to take hold and our planet was frequently hit by destructive asteroids. According to the Discovery News article Did Life on Earth Come From Mars?:

Without at least occasional dry land, the chemistry needed to get life started doesn't work very well because the molecules to support genetics, such as RNA, are chemically unstable in many ways, particularly in water.

The seeds of life could have come from Martian rocks that fall to Earth. Steven Benner, a chemist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution claimed:

The evidence seems to be building that we are actually all Martians; that life started on Mars and came to Earth on a rock.

According to Benner, Mars was once a more hospitable environment for the beginning of life than Earth. Other scientists think life could have found a way to form in the hostile conditions on Earth. The debate is ongoing.

Orson Welles War of the Worlds Broadcast


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