The title of this article is taken verbatim from a story by Thomas Elway in the May, 1930 edition of Popular Science magazine. (Here’s the web address if you’d like to look it up: http://www.popsci.com/archive-viewer?id=OigDAAAAMBAJ&pg=56)
In 1930, Mr. Elway reported, most astronomers believed the dark surfaces apparent on Mars were vegetation because they knew the atmosphere of Mars had breathable air, a 24-hour diurnal cycle and water galore that crisscrossed the planet through a series of canals that had supposedly been observed and mapped by prominent American astronomer Percival Lowell in 1894.
What astronomers could not, at that time, see on Mars was mountains, and that missed geological feature made them think it was improbable evolving life on Mars faced the tribulations of ice ages which anthropologists believed was the prime factor leading to human technological ingenuity. Therefore, no human life, but the terrain was perfect for beavers, a premise far-fetched, Mr. Elway conceded, but more “reasonable” than H.G. Wells’ mammoth octopi intent on Earth conquest.
Of course, space probes and rovers have laid all those early Martian speculations to rest. While I have to admire astronomers for not being ashamed to admit they were wrong, I personally feel a sentimental attachment to those visions from science fiction’s golden age: beefcake space jockeys meets up with a swim party of Martian Zsa-Zsa Gabors auditioning for the Hunger Games and they all take on a herd of dinosaurs.
If the recent spectacular success of NASA’s Curiosity Rover has captured your imagination, as it has further warped mine, come to the library and check out some of our cosmic astronomy books. Start with a classic, Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.” Most of us can remember Carl Sagan’s mesmerizing PBS series about the “billions and billions” of stars in the universe. Cosmos also contains a wonderful chapter about the history of scientific and artistic speculations about Mars.
Two other marvelous books with chapters about Mars are Dava Sobel’s “The Planets” and “The Grand Tour: A Traveler’s Guide to the Solar System” by Ron Miller and William K. Hartmann. National Geographic has always been one of the best sources for keeping up with advances in space exploration. Take a look at its book, “Uncovering the Secrets of the Red Planet Mars,” written by Paul Raeburn. Before you do, though, dig up or borrow a pair of 3D glasses because the middle of this book has a stunning double fold-out 3D panorama of Mars taken by the 1997 Sojourner Rover.
We also have an excellent Disney/NASA DVD collaboration called “Roving Mars” with visually stunning footage from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers and expert commentary by NASA scientists.
In case you’re considering becoming part of some future Martian landing party, or if you’d like to find out what we now think it would take to endure a trip to Mars, try Mary Roach’s “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void”. What do you do when your trip necessitates not only a couple extra pairs of socks, but everything vital to life as you’ve always known it?
For those of you who aren’t interested in going, but would sure like to meet a Martian, I highly recommend a book local historian Harry Enoch recommended for the library, “In Advance of the Landing: Folk concepts of Outer Space.” This book is an absolute gold mine of eccentric behavior in the service of well, popular science.
And, if popular science teaches us anything it’s certainly that, ice ages or no, some technological ingenuity is just wrong. Come to the library where you can explore the cosmos in the Dewey 520’s.