|Volume: 02, Issue: 01||01/14/2001|
Misunderstanding MarsSunday, Halloween night, 1938, in rural Grover's Mill, New Jersey, humankind came face to face with the stark realization that we weren't alone in the universe. The Martians had landed, and more than a million Americans took to the streets in panic. Newspapers, police, fire departments, and government phone lines were flooded with urgent calls from a frantic populace who wanted to know what could be done or if their family and friends had succumbed to the Martian heat rays. The world as we knew it was ending; and, to a few, it was déjà vu.
What they were hearing on the radio had appeared four decades earlier in print. In 1898, HG Wells' tale of a Martian invasion, War of the Worlds, was published. On that Halloween, 40 years later, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air had adapted the novel to a radio play designed to sound like an actual news broadcast. The show was so convincing that it resulted in mass hysteria, causing people to react as if we were actually being invaded. In fact, the hysteria was so engrained that several people actually remember witnessing the non-existant Martian war machines.
Today we may find the idea of a Martian invasion laughable, but the history of human understanding of Mars has always been shadowed by the history of humans misunderstanding Mars. Because of their power to travel along the backdrop of constellations we know as the zodiac, the ancients believed Mars and its fellow planets were gods, watching over the world from the distant heavens. As science and technology progressed, we learned, bit by bit, facts about the planets that were once considered impossible, or even heresy.
Before the 1400s when Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus claimed that the Mars and the other planets, including Earth, revolved around the sun rather than Earth (as it was widely believed), it was considered heresy. In fact, it was even heresy when, a century later, Galileo Galilei used his telescope and observations to prove Copernicus right.
In 1877, the telescope and a language barrier helped to create a misconception about Mars that may have fueled thes imaginations of those wrapped up in the false invasion of 1938. An Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, used his telescope to draw a detailed map of the Martian surface. On Mars he observed a series of cracks and ravines not unlike canyons and dried-up rivers found here on Earth. He called these canali, which was the Italian word for channel, though without the connotations of being man-made that the English word has. An American astronomer named Percival Lowell overlooked this subtle difference in languages and concluded the canals on Mars had to have been constructed by some intelligent force. Hence, the Martians were born.
In 1910, after extensive observations of the planet, Lowell published Mars As the Abode of Life, wherein he claimed these canals were created by the Martians in order to siphon melting water from the polar caps to the largely desert-like surface of Mars. The theory may have been fairly popular, but not within the established scientific community. Many of the astronomers of the day couldn't even find one of these astounding canals.
Eventually Lowell's theory was discredited. We have not, however, given up on our search for signs of life on Mars. Recent missions to Mars have discovered features on the surface that bare an extraordinary resemblance to dry river beds on Earth. It is possible that there may have been liquid water on the surface of Mars, and therefore, there may have been life.
To learn more about Orson Welles' Mercury Theater of the Air, visit:
For a complete electronic text of HG Wells' War of the Worlds, visit:
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