STARGAZING: Due to bad translation

Despite what one might see in science textbooks, science rarely advances smoothly.

Despite what one might see in science textbooks, science rarely advances smoothly, or in a logical series of developments.

It goes up blind alleys, may be driven by fortuitous discoveries or observations. However this erratic process will not happen without hard work and careful observation. One lovely example is the string of events driven by a combination of poor observations and bad translation from Italian to English.

Around the end of the 19th Century Percival Lowell, a wealthy American gentleman scientist, heard about interesting observations of the planet Mars made by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, at the Milan Observatory. Schiaparelli had seen linear features on Mars, which he referred to as channels. Of course he used the Italian word, canali. He only meant they are linearish grooves in the ground; there are features like that on the Moon too, and are entirely naturally occurring. However, Lowell and others misunderstood, and interpreted canali as canals. This is a different issue altogether. Canals are made by engineers. So the idea arose that these structures indicated the presence of intelligent Martians, carefully managing a scarce resource on an arid, dying world.

This generated a wealth of science fiction stories, among which the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.G. Wells are probably the best known. If there were intelligent Martians capable of huge engineering projects, they would have telescopes. These would enable them to see our green, wet, warm world, become envious, and then consider the idea of coming here and taking over. There are probably more science fiction and fantasy books and movies about Mars than about all the other planets in the Solar System combined. In such an atmosphere, it was easy for Lowell to develop a deep and lifelong interest in Mars – The Red Planet. So he selected a really high, clear, dark site, near Flagstaff, Arizona and had an observatory built on the top, intended exclusively for observing Mars. He spent many years meticulously mapping the planetís surface, carefully charting all the canals criss-crossing it. His vision was of agricultural areas connected by canals transporting water from the Polar Regions. This idea was supported by seeing the icecaps around the Martian poles growing and shrinking with the passage of the seasons.

Some astronomers, including many amateurs, were skeptical about those canals. They had noticed that when the atmosphere was fairly stable they saw canals flashing in and out of visibility. On the other hand, when the observing conditions were excellent, there were no canals.  This led to some experiments with cardboard discs with random lines and blobs on them. Through a perfectly focussed telescope, test observers saw random lines and blobs. On the other hand, if the telescopes were thrown slightly out of focus, the observers saw canals linking the blobs, just like canals taking water between agricultural areas. However, the romantic picture of Martians carefully husbanding the resources of a dying world was so attractive that it survived until the 1960s, when an American spacecraft flew by the planet. It sent back pictures of huge deserts, mountains, craters and great canyons, no canals, no agricultural areas, and no signs of any Martians.

The big question is how much our romantic visions of Mars led to the intense study to which the planet has been submitted, with orbiting spacecraft, landers, rovers and continuing discussion of manned missions to the world ñ probably quite a lot. However, Lowellís telescope went on to contribute more directly to astronomical progress. Clyde Tombaugh used it to discover Pluto.  Jupiter rises in the early hours. Saturn and Mars lie close together low in the sunset twilight. Saturn is now the one on the right. The Moon reaches First Quarter on the 1st.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council’s Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory


Just Posted

This photo of the small wildfire burning above Naramata was taken at 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 17, 2021 (Monique Tamminga Western News)
BC Wildfire on scene of small wildfire above Naramata

Black smoke can be seen rising from the mountain

Keremeos’ heritage Grist Mill and Gardens. (Brennan Phillips - Keremeos Review)
Keremeos Grist Mill looking forward to restrictions easing with exclusive concert planned

Juno Award-winning folk artist Valdy is set to take the stage

Letter writer says COVID has created lots of newbie cyclists who don't know rules of cycling. (File photo)
LETTER: Newbie cyclists in Penticton need lessons on rules of the road

Penticton cycling group just received city funding, should give back by offering how-to lessons

No dental coverage for low income Canadians. (File photo)
OPINION: Penticton MP’s proposal for universal dental coverage rejected

One in 3 Canadians have no dental coverage, with COVID making it even worse

The weekly COVID-19 map for June 6 to 12. (BC CDC)
South Okanagan sees only 5 new cases in last week

The Similkameen Valley went a second week without any new cases

Bear wanders Kelowna on June 15. (Michelle Wallace/Facebook)
Bear climbs fence, uses crosswalk in Kelowna

The bear was spotted on Baron Road Wednesday evening

Students in the Grade 10 entrepreneurship program at Summerland Unisus School have completed a cookbook with international recipes. (Contributed)
Summerland students create virtual international cookbook

Entrepreneurship program at Summerland Unisus School uses virtual cookbook as fundraiser

Hundreds of people, young and old, joined the three-day Walking Our Spirits Home procession, honouring residential school survivors, those who never made it home and all those affected by the institutions. Here people walk the third portion on June 13. (Martha Wickett - Salmon Arm Observer)
Walking Our Spirits Home from Kamloops provides path to healing

First Nations in and beyond Secwépemc territory join in to honour residential school survivors

More flames
Lake Country home destroyed in large blaze, 11 dogs rescued

Fire crews are responding to 10839 Hallam Drive

(Facebook/Kelowna Cabs)
Kelowna Cabs reaches tentative agreement with dispatchers union

The tentative agreement could help end the dispute between the taxi company and the dispatchers

FILE – A science class at L.A. Matheson Secondary in Surrey, B.C. on March 12, 2021. (Lauren Collins/Surrey Now Leader)
Teachers’ union wants more COVID transmission data as B.C. prepares for back-to-school

BCTF says that details will be important as province works on plan for September

A boat sharing service is extending to Summerland. The company, Penticton Boat Club and Rentals, is also taking over the boat rentals at Summerland Waterfront Resort. (Photo by Chris Stenberg)
Boat sharing service extended from Penticton to Summerland

Company will also operate boat rentals at Summerland Waterfront Resort

201 First Street West 1980s. Prior revitalization. (Photo from Revelstoke Museum and Archives)
Man who redesigned downtown Revelstoke honoured with lifetime achievement award

Robert Inwood has worked on historical projects across the province

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outlines B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan, May 25, 2021, including larger gatherings and a possible easing of mandatory masks on July 1. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. records 120 new COVID-19 cases, second vaccines accelerating

Lower Pfizer deliveries for early July, Moderna shipments up

Most Read