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When reporters accidentally wrote science fiction: A true story about Mars

By Ephrat Livni

Communication can be a tricky business, whether it’s your profession or you’re just exchanging words and ideas with your fellow humans. A true story about science fiction that was accidentally reported as fact a century ago is proof positive.

A little glitch and a lot of imagination misled science writers for decades. The error may still be fuelling people’s fascination with the planet Mars today, posits Walt Hickey in FiveThirtyEight.

It all started with a simple mistranslation. In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli claimed to have seen channels running along the surface of the planet Mars. In Italian, he wrote about these “canali”—a word mistranslated in English publications as “canals.”

Schiaparelli later said the channels were an illusion, that he saw incorrectly. But before that happened, the canals became a reality—of sorts.

Lowell’s canal maps in the New York Times. (NYT free PDF archives)

In 1894, Percival Lowell, a wealthy Bostonian heard about Schiaparelli’s alleged canals and became inspired. He built the Lowell Observatory, an observatory in Arizona (that still exists today) and used it to look at Mars. He, too, saw the canals—and began developing a theory of life on Mars. The canals, he said, were actual irrigation systems built by Martians. In 1895, Lowell wrote about it for The Atlantic Monthly.

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Lowell opining on Martian life in The Atlantic Monthly.

Science editors and writers were into it. Lowell’s speculations grew to be accepted as scientific observations. ”Indeed, even The Gray Lady went head over heels for Martian fan fiction,” Hickey writes of the New York Times. 

For example, in a 1906 story, Lilian Whiting declared with certainty that there is life on the planet Mars, basing her story on Lowell’s “findings.” Her story began:

The legions of canals on Mars, forming a colossal and a wisely planned system designed to irrigate the cases of the vast deserts which make up the surface of this planet, are an unanswerable argument for the existence of conscious intelligent life.

Whiting writing in the New York Times. (NYT free PDF archive)

And she was not alone in relying on this source. Lowell was also behind a 1911 story by Mary Proctor published in the Times.

Proctor reported that based on drawings and sightings Lowell claimed to have made from an observatory in Arizona, Martians completed two new massive canals in two years. “Vast engineering works accomplished in an incredibly short time by our planetary neighbors—Wonders of the September Sky,” Proctor wrote.

One of Lowell’s Martian canal maps. (NYT free PDF archive)

Others continued to cover the canals-on-Mars theory as established science. For example, James Young covered Mars in 1911 for the New York Times and discussed a French engineer’s suggestion to build a similar network of canals in the Sahara Desert, and try cross-canal and cross-cultural communication with Martians.

Excerpt from Young’s 1911 article. (NYT free PDF archive)

The French engineer’s idea was cute, if premature. First, the Martian canals weren’t real. Second, it’s not clear we were ready to communicate with Martians if they existed and we could signal to them. It’s not clear we’re ready now; as current concerns over fake political news make abundantly evident, human communication has hardly been perfected. And the smallest errors can have the strangest consequences. That’s a risk we may not want to take too eagerly when it comes to extraterrestrial communications in code.

When Lowell died in 1916, his theories had their critics. But his supposed Martian proof-of-life—by then totalling some 550 canals—was considered sufficiently legitimate to merit uncritical coverage in his New York Times obituary.

Lowell’s New York Times obituary. (NYT free PDF archive)