Monday, August 31, 2009

The Martian Chronicles

Percival Lowell was born in Boston in 1855, son of one of New England’s wealthiest and most distinguished families. His early career was absorbed in literature (his sister Amy Lowell became a famous poet) and Far Eastern travel. He became a diplomat, serving as counselor and foreign secretary to the Korean Special Mission to the United States. But in the 1890s, he read a translation of an 1877 book by Giovanni Schiaparelli, the same Italian astronomer who had concluded that Mercury’s rotation was synchronized with its orbit. Reporting his observations of the surface of Mars, Schiaparelli mentioned having discovered canali.
The word, which means nothing more than “channels” in Italian, was mistranslated as “canals” in what Lowell read, and the budding astronomer, already charmed by exotic places, set off in quest of the most exotic of all: Mars—and whatever race of beings had excavated canals upon it.
Lowell dedicated his considerable family fortune to
the study of the planet Mars. He built a private observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and, after years of observation, published Mars and Its Canals in 1906. Noting that the canal network underwent seasonal changes, growing darker in the summer, Lowell theorized that technologically sophisticated beings had created the canals to transport crop irrigation water from the Martian polar ice caps. In 1924, astronomers searched for radio signals from the planet (using a technique that anticipated the current search for radio signals from the universe), but to no avail. Yet the idea of intelligent life on Mars was so ingrained in the public imagination that, on October 30, 1938, Orson Welles’s celebrated radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’s 1898 science fiction novel about an invasion from Mars, War of the Worlds, triggered national panic. A variety of space probes have now yielded very high resolution images of Mars, revealing the apparent canals as natural features, such as craters and canyons. While it is true that Mars undergoes seasonal changes, the ice caps consist of a combination of frozen carbon dioxide and water.

Mars: “That Looks Like New Mexico!”

Those of us who were glued to our television sets when NASA shared images of the Martian surface produced by the Mars Pathfinder probe were struck by the resemblance of the landscape to the earth. Even the vivid red coloring of the rocky soil seems familiar to anyone who has been to parts of Australia or even the state of Georgia—though the general landscape, apart from its color, more closely resembles desert New Mexico.
In contrast to Mercury and Venus, which are barely inclined on their axes (in fact, their axes are almost perpendicular to their orbital planes), Mars is inclined at an angle of 25.2 degrees—quite close to the earth’s inclination of 23.5 degrees. And that’s only one similarity. While Mercury and Venus move in ways very different from the earth, Mars moves through space in ways that should seem quite familiar to us. It rotates on its axis once in every 24.6 hours—a little more than an Earth day—and because it is inclined much as the earth is, it also experiences familiar seasonal cycles.
The peculiarities of Mercury and Venus make Mars look more similar to the earth than it really is. Generations have looked to the red planet as a kind of solar system brother, partly believing, partly wishing, partly fearing that life might be found there. But the fact is that life as it exists on Earth cannot exist on the other terrestrial planets.

The Earth: Just Right

In our march through the terrestrial planets, the next logical stop would be Earth. We have mentioned some of the unique aspects of our home planet in earlier chapters, and will mention more in the course of the book. In particular, we will look at the earth as a home to life when we discuss the search for life elsewhere in the Milky Way. But let’s take a brief moment to think of the earth as just another one of the terrestrial planets. The earth is almost the same size as Venus, and has a rotational period and inclination on its axis almost identical to Mars. How is it, then, that the earth is apparently the only one of these three planets to support life?
As in real estate, it comes down to three things: location, location, and location. The earth is far enough from the sun that it has not experienced the runaway greenhouse effect of Venus. It is close enough to the sun to maintain a surface temperature that allows for liquid water, and massive enough to hold onto its atmosphere. The molten rock in the mantle layer above its core keeps the crust of the earth in motion (called plate tectonics), and the rotation of this charged material has generated a magnetic field that absorbs and holds on to charged particles that escape from the sun in the solar wind.
These conditions have created an environment in which life has gotten a foothold and flourished. And life has acquired enough diversity that the occasional setback (like the asteroid that struck the earth some 65 million years ago) may change the course of evolution of life on the planet, but has not yet wiped it out. Our home planet is truly remarkable, and remarkably balanced. The more we learn about our terrestrial neighbors, the more we should appreciate the delicate balance that supports life on Earth.