Since the Mariner 9 spacecraft went into orbit around Mars in 1972, satellites have taken photos of strange anomalies like the “Face” there, and most scientists agree, after looking at recent satellite images, that there are signs of primitive life on that planet. But no one has ever seen the “canals” on Mars, that were seen by the astronomer Percival Lowell in the early 1900’s. Sky & Telescope magazine has finally figured out why.
Beginning in 1894, Lowell observed Mars through his 24-inch telescope for 15 years. He saw a network of fine lines connecting the polar cap with a number of dark areas on the planet, and decided they must be canals built by an ancient, intelligent civilization to bring water from the melting ice cap on the arid and dying planet. He wasn?t the only one to see the canals?the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli also saw them. Lowell made careful sketches of them and wrote three popular books on the subject.
Lowell also saw canal-like formations on Venus, despite the fact that the planet is shrouded in a dense cloud cover. He insisted that the side of the planet with the canals always faced the Earth, meaning that Venus? rotation must be in sych with the Sun. He received much criticism for these remarks, and withdrew them in 1902. But when he saw the same features on Venus again in 1903, he insisted on their reality until he died, in 1916.
Amateur astronomers Bill Sheehan and Tom Dobbins wondered why Lowell had been able to see canals on planets where we, with much more sophisticated equipment, cannot. In an article they wrote for Sky & Telescope, they mentioned that in order to reduce the glare from Venus, which is the brightest object in the night sky next to the moon, Lowell narrowed his telescope lens from 24 inches to 3 inches or less.
Several optometrists and ophthalmologists wrote in with the solution to the puzzle of the canals. They pointed out that with his lens narrowed that far, Lowell had effectively created an ophthalmoscope, which is the instrument eye doctors use to look a the interior of our eyes. He was seeing a reflection of his own eyeball in the lens and what he saw as ?spokes? or canals, were actually the shadows of his own blood vessels and other structures inside his retina.
Sheehan and Dobbins compared one of Lowell?s sketches with a photograph of the blood vessels in the retina and found them to be very much alike. We still haven?t solved the mystery of the Face on Mars (despite what some skeptics say), but we now know there are no ancient canals there.
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