Giovanni Schiaparelli and the Martian Canals

Mars surface map of Schiaparelli

On March 14, 1835, Italian astronomer and science historian Giovanni Schiaparelli was born. He is remembered best for his observations of planet Mars, where he discovered a dense network of linear structures on the surface of Mars which he called “canali” in Italian, meaning “channels” but the term was mistranslated into English as “canals” indicating that the observed structures should be of artificial origin.

Schiaparelli enrolled at the University of Turin, but later moved his research to Berlin, where he studied at the Observatory under the famous German astronomer Johann Franz Encke. In 1859, he worked at the Pulkovo Observatory near St Petersburg and returned to Italy, where he researched for more than 40 years at the Brera Observatory. In his later years, Schiaparelli became a senator of the Kingdom of Italy.

Giovanni Schiaparelli devoted much of his time as a scientist to telescopic observations of planet Mars. In his initial observations, he named the “seas” and “continents” of Mars. During the planet’s Great Opposition of 1877, he observed a dense network of linear structures on the surface of Mars which he called “canali” in Italian, meaning “channels” but the term was mistranslated into English as “canals”. As we know, canals indicate artificial constructions, wherefore channels indicate natural configurations of the planetary surface.

When the term was incorrectly translated, numerous research attempts were made about life on Mars as well as its conditions. The ‘canals’ became very popular and the result was a rise of hypotheses, and mad speculations on the possibilities of intelligent life on Mars. Theories about the ‘Martians’ established. The well known American astronomer Percival Lowell was known to be one of the greatest supporters of the canal-hypothesis. He then spent a great time of his professional life attempting to find existing intelligent life on the planet. It was only in the 1910s after Lowell’s death that scientists officially rejected the artificial-canal-hypothesis.

However, the science fiction culture did not let go off the mystical canal theory and the ‘possible’ life on Mars inspired numerous writers like H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Unfortunately for Schiaparelli, it was found out in later years that the observed channels were really only optical illusions. The last doubts were finally cleared in the 1960s, when Mariner 4 from the American Space Program photographed the surface with much higher resolution than Earth-based telescopes, confirming that there are no structures resembling “canals”.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a lecture entitled Life on Mars? Let`s look in the caves by Dr Penelope Boston.

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