Lesson #35: The Hurtling Moons of Barsoom (19th Century A.D.)
Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli (1835–1910) is the prolific Italian astronomer whose
research ranged widely, but whose name is forever associated with Mars, and the controversy
over the Martian "canals" which, unwittingly, he helped to unleash.
Born in Savigliano, Piedmont, Schiaparelli graduated from the University of Turin
and studied at the Royal Observatory in Berlin under Johann Encke, discoverer of
a short-period comet that now bears his name. After a brief spell at Pulkova Observatory
in Russia, he joined the staff of Milan's Brera Observatory in 1860 and became its
director two years later. The small instruments at Brera led Schiaparelli to focus
his research initially on meteors and comets. Indeed, probably his most important
contribution to astronomy was his discovery that swarms of meteors, which give rise
to annual showers on Earth, and comets follow similar paths through space.
His reward for this breakthrough was the installation of a more powerful (8.6-in.)
refractor at Brera which allowed him to engage in serious planetary work. He first
wanted to test the powers of the new instrument, to see if it "possessed the necessary
optical qualities to allow for the study of the surfaces of the planets." 1877 brought
the ideal opportunity in the form a particularly favorable opposition of Mars. Schiaparelli
prepared for it almost like a prize fighter, avoiding "everything which could affect
the nervous system, from narcotics to alcohol, and especially ... coffee, which I
found to be exceedingly prejudicial to the accuracy of observation."
What emerged from Schiaparelli's long hours at the eyepiece in September 1877 was
the most (optimistically) detailed map of Mars ever published. With the additional
features he filled in over the next decade, it became a standard reference in planetary
cartography, still in use until the dawn of the space probe era, and the scheme he
devised for naming major Martian features survives to this day.
He used Latin and Mediterranean place names taken from ancient history, mythology,
and the Bible. A light spot in the southern hemisphere, for example, he called Nix
Olympia -the Snows of Olympus (now known to be the largest volcano in the solar system
and rechristened Olympus Mons). The great triangular feature, first observed by Huygens
in 1669, became Syrtis Major, while large, bright patches earned the picturesque
labels of Elysium, Cydonia, Tharsis, and Thyle.
What was most striking about Schiaparelli's original map, however, was a curious
network of linear markings which crisscrossed the Martian surface and joined one
dark area to another. These lines he referred to as canali and he named them after
famous rivers, both fictional and real—Gehon, Hiddekel, and Phison from the rivers
in the Garden of Eden, Lethes and Nepenthes from the underground realm of Hades,
and Ganges, Euphrates, and Nilus from actual geography.
Schiaparelli insisted that his nomenclature was not intended to prejudge the nature
of the features he saw on the Martian surface: "These names may be regarded as a
mere artifice ... After all, we speak in a similar way of the seas of the Moon, knowing
very well that they do not consist of liquid masses."
However, the romantic and evocative names he chose would prove to have a powerful
influence over some of his contemporaries. Moreover, Schiaparelli himself clearly
favored a maritime view of Mars in which the dark areas were seas and the brighter
During the opposition of 1879, Schiaparelli refined his original map, noting some
changes such as the apparent invasion of a bright area known as Libya by Syrtis Major.
This encouraged him in his belief that Syrtis Major was a shallow sea which at times
flooded the lands around. He drew in more canals and for the first time reported
what he called a "gemination," or doubling of one of these features. Of the reality
of the canali, if not their exact nature, he was utterly convinced: "It is [as] impossible
to doubt their existence as that of the Rhine on the surface of the Earth."
So began the great canal controversy. Were the canali real? And if so, what were
they? In an influential 1893 article, Schiaparelli maintained that Mars is a planet
of seasonal change, with a temporary sea forming around the northern polar cap as
it melted each spring. In support of his belief in a Martian atmosphere rich in water
vapor he pointed to the spectroscopic observations of Hermann Vogel. The canals,
he asserted, comprised "a true hydrographic system" and perhaps "the principal mechanism
... by which water (and with it organic life) may be diffused over the arid surface
of the planet."
As to their origin, he leaned toward a natural explanation: "We are inclined to believe
them to be produced by an evolution of the planet, just as on the Earth we have the
English Channel and the Channel of Mozambique." However, he did not rule out the
possibility that they might be artificial: "Their singular aspect, and their being
drawn with absolute geometrical precision, as if they were the work of rule or compass,
has led some to see in them the work of intelligent beings ... I am very careful
not to combat this supposition, which includes nothing impossible."
Cautious and unflambouyant though he was—in sharp contrast to Percival Lowell—Schiaparelli
nevertheless seems to have been biased in his Martian studies by a underlying desire
to prove the habitability (if not the actual habitation) of other worlds in the solar
One man was so influenced by the Martian cartography of Schiaparelli that he created
an entire fictional series based around it.
The American author Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875–1950) started to write for pulp magazines
at the age of 35. His first professional sale was Under the Moons of Mars, serialized
in 1912 and introducing the popular invincible hero John Carter, who is transported
to Mars apparently by astral projection, following a battle with Apaches in Arizona.
(Burroughs himself was a former cavalryman who fought in the last anti-Apache campaign
in 1896.) ERB's Red Planet was an exotic place filled with beautiful maidens, treacherous
warlords, and monsters such as tharks and apts. It was referred to in the books by
its alleged native name of Barsoom. The Martian series eventually reached eleven
books including John Carter of Mars, A Princess of Mars, and Thuvia, Maid of Mars.
Burroughs has been repeatedly condemned as a racist and proto-National Socialist
by assorted politically correct establishments, and it can't be denied that there
are distinctly racial elements in the John Carter series and also in his later, better
known Tarzan mythos. Yet he is still recognized as a precursor and one of the fathers
of modern science fiction, even though Schiaparelli's Martian theories have been
proven baseless by the advent of space travel.