Victorian Visions of Mars

“The best scientist is open to experience and begins with romance – the idea that anything is possible.”  – Ray Bradbury

Readers may recall the astronomer Percival Lowell (1855-1916) who, with the aid of his trusty telescope, first wrote about (and drew so creatively) the canals of Mars.  Whatever he lacked in scientific precision he made up for with an astronomical imagination. Indeed, Lowell was a giant in planetary astronomy.  His most notable scientific achievement is associated not with Mars, but with another far more distant planetary body.  During his professional life, Lowell searched meticulously for what was labeled in his time, Planet X.  Within two decades of his death, his Lowell Observatory in Arizona eventually discovered it (actually the find would be that of astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh in 1930).  Planet X wasn’t Nibiru as the recent work of the late Zecharia Sitchin popularized – it was in fact the planet (now dwarf planet) Pluto.

The Canals of Mars as Drawn by Lowell
The Canals of Mars as Drawn by Lowell

Lowell influenced his generation in a way similar to Carl Sagan’s influence on ours.  Lowell was one of the first scientists to actively advocate the possibility that life existed on Mars.  Lowell’s impact on public interest in Mars was enormous.  Without Lowell’s earlier work, Orson Welles’ famous radio broadcast presented on October 30, 1938 (a tale of another Wells, H.G. Wells’, War of the Worlds – 1898), wouldn’t have stirred much controversy.  As it was, Lowell paved the way well for both Wells (and Welles) to be permanently etched in our cultural memory.  But it is worth noting the hysteria all began by seeing things on Mars.[i]

However, the observation of canals on the Martian surface did not begin with Percival Lowell.  The Encyclopedia of Science provides this short anecdote of the history of seeing things on Mars.

[Canals] the term [was] first used by Pietro Secchi, and later adopted by [Giovanni Virginio] Schiaparelli[ii] and others, to describe certain features claimed to have been observed on the surface of Mars. Canali can be correctly translated from the Italian either as “channels” or “canals.” Schiaparelli generally intended and preferred the former and, indeed, often used an alternative description, fiumi (rivers) for the same features. Almost inevitably, however, canali was usually translated into English as “canals,” implying an artificial origin.

Lowell and His Telescope
Lowell and His Telescope

At an address to the Boston Scientific Society on May 22, 1894, Lowell shared his enthusiasm for approaching discoveries concerning life on Mars:  “This may be put popularly as an investigation into the condition of life on other worlds, including last but not least their habitability by beings like [or] unlike man… there is strong reason to believe that we are on the eve of [a] pretty definite discovery in the matter.”  Lowell believed that the intelligence implied in the use of canal to translate canali was not amiss:  “… in them we are looking upon the result of the work of some sort of intelligent beings …” [iii]  Contemporaries to Lowell were about as kind to him as are critics to our modern-day Martian enthusiast, Richard Hoagland. They challenged his belief in Martian life through their academic brouhaha.  To their point of view, Lowell was merely caught up in the romance of conjecturing intelligent life on Mars. James Keeler, a contemporary of Lowell’s provided this not-so-complementary summation of Lowell’s responsibility for exciting interest in Mars during the dedication ceremony of Wisconsin’s Yerkes Observatory in 1897:

It is to be regretted that the habitability of the planets, a subject of which astronomers profess to know little, has been chosen as a theme for exploitation by the romancer, to whom the step from habitability to inhabitants is a very short one. The result of his ingenuity is that fact and fantasy become inextricably tangled in the mind of the layman, who learns to regard communication with inhabitants of Mars as a project deserving serious consideration…[iv]

This particular notion of romance deserves some elaboration.  To our ears, the word romance summons images of courtship, love affairs, and being amorous.  But romance also conveys the notion of “a spirit of adventure” or a “fascination with something.”  The incurable romantic inclines toward believing in what reinforces his or her fascination, rather than “facing the facts” that might conflict with what he or she believes.  Scientists generally feign dispassion in their quest for knowledge.  Detachment makes the scientist appear more credible.  However, the truth of the matter is that without a passionate connection, most scientists would be lousy at their work.

Consider the scientist referenced above who blazed the trail for Schiaparelli and Lowell, Pietro Secchi.  Secchi (1818 – 1878) was a Jesuit priest and the director of The Roman College Observatory forerunner to today’s Vatican Observatory.  Secchi believed in pluralism, otherwise known as the doctrine of many worlds. In 1856 he said, “It is with sweet sentiment that man thinks of these worlds without number, where each star is a sun which, as minister of the divine bounty, distributes life and goodness to the other innumerable beings, blessed by the hand of the Omnipotent.” Carl Sagan couldn’t have said it more poetically himself (although he did try). Secchi would eventually teach in London and later at Georgetown University in the United States before returning to Rome to lead his observatory.  Today we marvel at the fact that members of the Vatican Observatory conjecture about extraterrestrials and their attempts to rationalize the possibility of intelligent life.  It is an interesting point to recognize, however, that today’s Vatican astronomers like José Gabriel Funes and Michael Heller follow in Secchi’s path. For at least two centuries, The Vatican has construed extraterrestrial life a probable consequence of the vastness of space and the innumerable stars obvious to our eyes (both aided and unaided).

Proximity of the Red Planet

Because of the differences in the shapes and diameters of the orbits of Earth and Mars, there are times when the planets are close together and times when they are very far apart.  This ranges from approximately 35 million to 250 million miles.  This relationship was crucial for astronomers armed with their newly more powerful telescopes to observe the Red Planet.  In 1845 and in 1924 Mars was near to earth. In 2003 it was the closest that it had been in almost 60,000 years.  Thanks to modern rocket science, the proximity of Mars allowing a close inspection makes what is called “the opposition of Mars” mostly irrelevant – at least as far as observation goes, that is.  Timing the trip of the rocket from the Earth to Mars still makes the “opposition of Mars” a practical consideration for our rocket scientists.

Mars at Proximity 2003
Mars at Proximity 2003

In a previous article (available on my web site) Mars Revisited: The Red Planet and the Final Great Deception[v], I made the point, “Mars seemingly makes smart people see things that may not be there.” In the article I raised the issue of Hoagland’s romanticism about Mars:

This thought crossed the minds of [researchers and authors] Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince… when they examined Hoagland’s iconoclastic contentions concerning Mars and the origin of life.  While not eager to discredit Hoagland’s arguments and certainly not intending to question his sincerity—nonetheless, they challenge his observations and especially the extent of his conclusions.  They question whether such momentous claims are reasonable, let alone justified, given the ramifications as to humankind’s beliefs about itself.   Aren’t these speculations really just the enthusiastic assertions of an eager believer hot on the trail of evidence to prove his personal conspiracy theory and cosmology—specifically, his personal view regarding how humankind came to be?

Citing the words of Picknett and Prince verbatim:

To Hoagland’s eye there seemed to be a whole complex of pyramidal and other structures, covering an area of about 12 square miles.  He excitedly termed it the ‘City’.  This appeared to be made up of several massive, and some smaller, pyramids, plus some much smaller conical ‘buildings’ grouped around an open space that he called the ‘City Square’.  In the northeast corner of the City was an enormous structure that appears to be made up of three huge walls, which Hoagland dubbed the ‘Fortress’.

Perhaps the most significant assumption Hoagland made—and surely the one with the least justification on such slight knowledge—was his association of these features with Egypt.  As soon as he discovered the City, Hoagland wrote:  ‘I was reminded overwhelmingly of Egypt.’  He then went on to identify various other features in Cydonia:  the ‘Cliff’, a 2-mile-long wall-like feature near a crater 14 miles directly east of the Face; and several small (250—400-foot) objects dotted about the Cydonia plain that he called ‘mounds’.[vi]

Quoting Hoagland from his book, The Monuments of Mars:  “For it is now clear… that, if appropriately researched and then applied to many current global problems, the potential ‘radical technologies’ that might be developed from the ‘Message of Cydonia’ could significantly assist the world in a dramatic transition to a real ‘new world order’… if not a literal New World.”[vii]

Picknett and Prince observe, “In other words, Hoagland is implying that these putative [reputed] extraterrestrials actually created the human race, and this idea, odd though it may appear, is rapidly gaining currency throughout the world.” Whereas Lowell observed straight lines signifying intelligence in design, Hoagland has indicated clear indications of intelligence through mathematics implicit in the structures he sees on Mars.  Graham Hancock, another alternative historian eager to make a splash with provocative comments, lends credibility to Hoagland with these words:  “Still, we cannot deny that the act of placing a tetrahedral object on Mars at latitude 19.5˚ contains all the necessary numbers and symbolism to qualify as a “message received” signal in response to the geometry of Cydonia.” [viii]

Picknett and Prince critique Hoagland’s (and Hancock’s) romantic view asserting it is a case of circular argument:

The basic argument is that, because there are pyramids and a Sphinx in both Giza and Cydonia, the two are connected.  But of course that depends on the Face on Mars being a Sphinx.  The Cydonia clique describes it as being Sphinx-like; indeed, James Hurtak was using such emotive language even before it was officially discovered… [Hoagland claims, that one] is ‘simian’ in appearance, the other ‘leonine’—an anthropoid and a lion.  The great Sphinx at Giza is a man’s head on a lion’s body.  Conclusion:  we have two Sphinxes—in close proximity with pyramids—on both worlds!”[ix]

Full Disclosure and the Planet Mars

Hoagland’s The Monuments of Mars (1987) has become the modern day equivalent of Lowell’s speculative books on Mars published almost 100 years earlier. [x]   The point in this article is that not only is Hoagland romantic about Mars in the same vein as Percival Lowell, he also may be guilty of “seeing things on Mars” besides the infamous face of the so-called Cydonia Mensae (by the way, a mensae is the altar stone atop a religious altar).

Cydonia Mensae
Cydonia Mensae

In other words, very recent observations of Richard Hoagland as demonstrated in his presentations featuring high resolution photographs from Mars’ Curiosity (the Mars Science Laboratory), his knack for seeing things continues.  What makes his argument more pungent is the presence of conspiracy theories alleging NASA knows far more than it is willing to admit. As if that was not enough to create a spate of interest, Hoagland determined it best to assert politics was in play on the Martian plane.

In October, several weeks before the re-election of Barack Obama, Hoagland boldly predicted the “October Surprise of all time” President Obama would disclose to the citizens of these United States that Mars in fact did hold reason for exploration… not only would life of some sort be discovered, but evidence was now abundant that an ancient civilization once dwelt there.  About three months earlier Hoagland had announced his prediction just before Curiosity landed on the Martian surface (August, 2012), on George Noury’s Coast-to-Coast AM.  By October, 2012, Hoagland had enjoyed two months of viewing the photos sent to Earth by the Mars Science Lab.  Not discouraged by the failure to see plain wreckage of an ancient city, or spires from a long gone civilization, his focus was limited to a careful study of the rocks in the foreground and the hills standing stark in the background.  In a presentation featured on YouTube, published December 1, 2012, Hoagland showcased numerous photos from the high resolution cameras aboard Curiosity.[xi]  Slide-by-slide, Hoagland pointed out various scenes of the Martian landscape featuring Mount Sharp in the background.  As always, Hoagland resorted to depicting the pyramidal shape of hills and mountains within the Gale Crater.  Rock after rock held fascination for Hoagland as he called out to his audience their metallic shining surfaces as well as weird shadows cast by the remote sunlight. Select rocks seemed to “stand out like a sore thumb” mostly due to inconsistent coloration of a particular rock with its adjacent colleagues.  He quickly pinpointed various items to illustrate mangled “high tech ruins.” Not that the photos were that clear-cut. “There is a political agenda to keep anything John Carter Posterobvious from the public.” “But the geometry is stunningly obvious.”

During his presentation, Hoagland dropped hints hither, thither, and yon of why various science fiction writers (Edgar Rice Burroughs of John Carter fame, or more recently Ray Bradbury through his Martian Chronicles) had intuitively known fifty to one hundred years earlier – that there was an ancient civilization on Mars of advanced intelligence.  He inferred their writings anticipated the discovery now made apparent by Curiosity.  “It’s obvious. You see the sculptured geometry – rectilinear geometry (as if the articulate language would bestow intelligence to the rocks he described).  His tone seemed to convey astonishment at anyone who would dare doubt his speculative conclusions.  It was as if he were saying, “Can’t you see it in these photos?  You can’t?  What – are you blind?”

While I found myself straining for more clarity (and wishing YouTube provided higher resolution to enhance the pictures), I had to remind myself that what photo resolution was lacking Hoagland would overcome for me with his intricate, high-tech descriptions.  After all, I’m an incurable romantic too. Like Fox Mulder, “I want to believe.”  Hoagland cautioned that seeing things evincing intelligence would be a subtle science:  “The wind excavates the mangled metallic ruins, like ruins of the Titanic strewn on the ocean floor.”  Bits and pieces of “junk” is all we can anticipate.  Somehow this didn’t seem to justify the claims he was making.  The height of his argument seemed built on a few weird rocks – one that looked like a tennis shoe and another rock that looked (to him) like a pump.  Was it strange looking?  Yes.  But was it compelling enough to rewrite history?  In my opinion, hardly.

I remain convinced we must hold out hope for something more conclusive.  For so far neither NASA nor Richard Hoagland has been able to deliver the goods to an audience not swayed by the lure of the “transcendent” meaning inevitably ascribed to discovering THEM.  To cite his words exactly, “I believe whoever built Puma Punku (in Peru) came from Mars.” That is quite a claim. We still lack clear photographic evidence of those artifacts Hoagland believes cinch his case.  Moreover, since his claims are so monumental (no pun intended) – that whoever built ancient cities on Earth first built them on Mars – the amount of proof necessarily must be pretty sizeable too.

Why We Want to See More than is Really There

It is true that there is something distinctly familiar to the landscape we see in the Curiosity photos.  But is this yet another trick that our minds play upon us to help us adapt to what we see? Others have remarked that looking at Mars is like looking at the Mojave Desert, which coincidentally I had just done firsthand in January, 2013, as I drove through southern California on my way to my father’s house in Oklahoma.[xii] Trusting our own eyes in such an out-of-this-world setting surely calls for caution.  Seeing a mirage in the desert is certainly standard.

Aeolis Mons August 17 2012
Aeolis Mons August 17 2012

Posted on the CBS News website, writer Benjamin Radford provided a pithy characterization of the search for life on Mars gone sideways.  From his skeptical perspective, “seeing things is the essence of the problem.”  Radford recounts:

Photos of the surface of Mars taken by the NASA robot Spirit in 2008 were said to show a humanlike figure. Several Internet sites posted the image and suggested the figure could be alive, sparking speculation and controversy. The real explanation, according to astronomer Phil Plait of the Bad Astronomy website, is that “The rock on Mars is actually just a few inches high and a few yards from the camera. A few million years of Martian winds sculpted it into an odd shape, which happens to look like, well, a Bigfoot!”

Then in 2010 a team of psychics led by Courtney Brown, a researcher at Emory University, claimed to have found evidence not only of life on Mars in NASA photos, but also a large industrial dome and a plume of waste coming from it. In a video presentation titled “Evidence of Artificiality on Mars,” Brown claimed to have found “a very large dome that is highly reflective, it looks like it’s made of some sort of resin material.” Needless to say, no other evidence of an alien dome has ever been found.

History and human psychology tell us that sooner or later, one or more of the thousands of images beaming to us from Curiosity 352 million miles away will contain some glitch, anomaly, or trick of light that will be interpreted by someone as evidence of Martians. Of course it’s possible that the rover will find real, actual evidence of life on Mars – but it probably won’t be in the form of alien bases.[xiii]

It’s easy to forget that 60 years ago most scientists believed in life on Mars.  From LiveScience, 08-03-2012, Josh Bandfield a Mars expert and planetary scientist at the University of Washington is quoted making this observation: “Before the Mariner flybys in the 1960s, scientists thought Mars had water and life, even if it was just some sort of plantlike lichen.  Mars’ spectrum, its color in the near infrared, mimics that of vegetation. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, they concluded that was evidence of chlorophyll, and Mars had vegetation.”[xiv]  

In the article by Becky Oskin, she cites Bob Crossley, emeritus professor of English at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and author of the book Imagining Mars: A Literary History (Wesleyan, 2011).  “The nature of people’s interest in Mars has evolved in the last 50 or 60 years, but it’s never entirely vanished.” Oskin points out that the early Mariner missions to Mars dampened enthusiasm for Mars.  All of a sudden, the planet looked much too much like our own Moon, with craters and vast expanses of nothingness.  Much to the dismay of the public, Mars appeared to be dead as a door nail.

In the 1960s, the early Mariner missions prompted a radical change in our relationship with Mars, when images showed an apparently dead, cratered planet.

“The flyby showed pictures of a very moonlike landscape, which had a staggering effect,” said [Bob] Sheehan [psychologist, amateur astronomer, and author]. “It left people quite demoralized.” NASA’s expeditions may have killed some of the Red Planet’s romanticism, Sheehan believes.

“The less defined an object is like Mars, the more evocative it is. We use it as a Rorschach [the infamous ink-blot test] to project our hopes and fears on to.  As Mars becomes more explored, it becomes a more quotidian setting [i.e., commonplace, unremarkable] that no longer captures the imagination,” Sheehan said.[xv]

In the final analysis, the reality of the situation is certainly most unromantic: the closer we get to Mars, as regards whether the Red Planet harbors life, ironically the worse our view becomes.



[i] Because The Mercury Theatre of the Air was a radio broadcast without commercial interruption and was presented as a series of continuous news bulletins, thousands of listeners became convinced the Earth was under invasion by aliens. The fret over aliens attaching our planet has become a standing plotline for books and movies ever since.

[ii] Schiaparelli, Giovanni Virginio (1835 – 1910) was the unintentional instigator of the debate regarding intelligent life on Mars by observing and documenting canali (not cannoli mind you, a favorite pastry dish) one of the most far-reaching cases of words whose intended meaning was lost in translation.

[iii] See, an article in The Encyclopedia of Science, on Percival Lowell.

[iv] Ibid.


[vi] Picknett and Prince, The Stargate Conspiracy, New York, Berkeley Books, 1999 and 2001, p. 122.

[vii] Ibid., p. 128, quoting Hoagland from The Monuments of Mars, p. 373.

[viii] Ibid., p. 325, quoting Graham Hancock from The Mars Mystery.

[ix] Picknett and Prince, op. cit., pp. 134-135.

[x] Lowell published several books:  Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals2 (1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life3 (1908),

[xi] “The Stealth Mission of Curiosity, Confirming Ancient Intelligence on Mars,” See

[xii] The biggest difference I noted, as I was remarking to one of my friends Patricia while driving through the Mojave, “The mountains on Mars appear to have been eroded ‘from side to side’ by violent waters raging across the plains of Mars.  The mountains of the Mojave show erosion ‘from the top down’ due to millions of years of rain (although it only rains there rarely).  Otherwise, they appear equally red and desolate.”

[xiii] See Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries.  His Web site is

[xv] Ibid.

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