Did you know that the fans of science fiction owe the greatest thanks to an incorrectly translated Italian word around the 1800s?

In the year 1877, an Italian astronomer by the name of Giovanni Schiaparelli was observing Mars with his newly improved refractor telescope in Milan. He decided to map the Mars surface and ended up naming Martian ‘continents’ and ‘seas’ using historic and mythological sources. It was the first ever detailed map of Mars and a lot of terminology from it is still in use.

Anyway, Mr. Schiaparelli was having a look and noticed too many channels, rather a network of them, on Mars surface. He called them ‘canali’, which is the Italian word for channels. All this man wanted was to give a befitting name to an observed feature on the natural configuration of a planetary surface. Today, high-resolution mapping has shown that no such structures actually exist and these canali were probably the result of some optical illusion or less advance technology. Anyway, the key takeaway here is that this was merely an observed feature on Mars by him.

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(Mars map by Schiaparelli in 1877)

The mapping of Mars surface was a pretty big deal at that time and for good reason. His map was translated to several languages, English among the most prominent ones. Thus, ‘Canali’ that referred to marks and grooves was mistranslated to ‘canal’, which is the name for human-made channels for water transportation and thus pointed to intelligent life on Mars. The recent construction of the Suez Canal in 1869 (an engineering marvel of the era) drove the above idea pretty quickly into people’s heads.

In fact, in the year 1894, a Boston astronomer Percival Lowel made his first observations of Mars and owing to what can now be understood as a confirmation bias, he concluded that the canals were real! He even mapped hundreds of them and theorised that the straight lines were artificial canals built by intelligent Martians to carry water from polar caps to equatorial regions.

His theories went on to influence a young English writer named H. G. Wells, who published The War of the Worlds four years later. The novel is about an invasion of Earth by Martians and it launched a whole new genre of alien science fiction. We have this followed by the likes of A Princess of Mars series by Edgar R. Burroughs who even used Schiaparelli’s names for regions of Mars. This went on and on with dozens of books and stories published every subsequent year for a while based on Martians.

On Halloween in 1938, a radio version of The War of the Worlds was broadcast by Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre. The story, presented as a series of “live” news bulletins, actually panicked thousands of listeners who believed that America was being attacked by hostile Martians!

As for the ‘Martian canals’ that started it all? Nobody saw them ever and for one reason. They don’t exist! It was all a crazy case of confirmation bias and apophenia. While the truth was all straightened out soon enough with scientific advancement, it all worked in the favour of science fiction fans. Well, all’s well that ends well 🙂

Sources:

NASA- The ‘Canali’ and the First Martians
A Short History of Martian Canals and Mars Fever
The “Canals” of Mars: How Giovanni Schiaparelli Saw Tharsis
Tracing the Canals of Mars: An Astronomer’s Obsession
The Canals of Mars

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