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    Not Just For Kids

    MARS: Part 2

    See Also: Part 1

    Mars has fascinated sky watchers for centuries, perhaps because it is our “next-door-neighbor.” The Red Planet also found its way into the human imagination. Last week’s article featured Mars facts and science. This week we will explore Mars myths and fiction.

    Mars Mythology

    The planet Mars was named after the Roman god of war. Its two moons, Phobos and Deimos, were named after the two mythical horses that drew the war god's chariot. Mars was the son of Juno, Jupiter's wife. Mars was the next most important god after Jupiter, whom the Romans regarded as the king of the gods. They named the month of March for Mars. The planet Mars is similarly identified with Ares, the Greek god of war. Apparently, these ancient peoples thought the planet looked like it had a blood-stained surface, thus its association with warfare.

    Mars Myths

    Over the years, our exploration of Mars has proven that there is no such thing as a Martian civilization that could build canals and monuments, or launch an invasion of Earth. But in the past these were very real theories! In fact, during the 1880’s, the belief that Mars was inhabited by intelligent beings was part of the conventional wisdom of the day. Was Mars once a vibrant world, with oceans and an atmosphere? Even today, some scientists haven’t given up hope that they will find microscopic signs of past life on Mars.

    Canals - The most enduring myth about Mars was based on a translation error. In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Sciaparelli reported observing large “canali” (meaning "channels," as in natural water courses) on Mars. Unfortunately, the term "canali" was mistranslated as "canals" in English, which implied engineered, manmade waterways. Percival Lowell (the American astronomer who founded Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ where Pluto was discovered) even theorized that Martians had built the canals to carry water from the polar ice caps to the desert regions of the planet. The lines were, in fact, an optical illusion.

    Ancient Monuments - Some people claimed that there was a monumental "face" on the planet left by an ancient civilization, something like the Egyptian Pyramids. The Viking 1 and 2 orbiters took photographs of this area, and no evidence of manufactured structures was found. Planetary scientists agree that the facelike image is–like the "Man in the Moon"–the result of light and shadows on a natural feature.

    Martian Invaders - In The War of the Worlds, published in 1898, English novelist H.G. Wells wrote about a Martian invasion of Earth. This put the idea in people’s heads that Martians could be a potential threat to Earth. Forty years later, Orson Welles broadcast a radio version of the novel and many panicked listeners thought it was a newscast of an actual alien attack!

    Martian Microorganisms - A small number of meteorites are believed to have come from Mars. An asteroid impact may have thrown pieces of the red planet out into space, where they eventually fell to earth. One of these was discovered by meteorite hunters in an ice field in Antarctica in 1984. In 1996, a team of scientists announced that they had identified organic compounds in this Martian meteorite. Further, they suggested that certain mineralogical features observed in the rock resembled microscopic fossils, and that they may be evidence of ancient Martian microorganisms. Their research was published in a journal called Science. The news media immediately picked up on it and everyone was once again talking about life on Mars. Other scientists doubted this theory, however, and several contradictory studies have since been published. As a rule, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Consequently, this still did not prove there was ever any life on Mars.

    Did You Know…?

    The ASU Center for Meteorite Studies houses more than 1,400 specimens, the largest collection held by any university in the world. Only London’s British Museum and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. have more meteorites. The ASU collection includes five Martian meteorites.

    The Planet Mars

    Together we sat in the summer night,
    (An August night with a wealth of stars)
    And we marked where it gleamed so redly bright,
    The Planet Mars.
    We spoke of the cruel wrongs of earth,
    Of the host of evils that greed unbars;
    And then we spoke of another birth
    In the Planet Mars.
    And we wondered if each would know the name
    Of the other, up there, amid the stars,
    And we said we hoped they would be the same
    In the Planet Mars.
    And so we talked through the summer night,
    Of life and of love amid the stars;
    And how our wrongs would be all made right
    In the Planet Mars.

    ~Albert Bigelow Paine (1893)

    Fun Fact: The Mars chocolate bar was NOT named after the planet Mars. It was named after the candy company’s founder, Frank Mars. The Mars family also made the Milky Way bar, named for its malted milk flavor.


    Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, 1726. (In this tale, fictitious astronomers study the moons of Mars. The author described Phobos and Deimos, giving their exact size and speeds of rotation. He did this more than a hundred years before either moon was discovered!)

    The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells, 1897. (H.G. Wells painted a picture of horror with this realistic depiction of a Martian invasion. Written in a semi-documentary style, this interplanetary war story gained immediate popularity and became a prototype for future science fiction novels.)

    A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1917. (Science fantasy from the author of the Tarzan books. This was the first in a series of eleven adventures known as the Martian Tales.)

    A Martian Odyssey, by Stanley G. Weinbaum, 1934. (A famous short story about Mars, it eloquently foreshadows the difficulty in communicating with extraterrestrial intelligences.)

    Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis, 1943. (A human spaceflight to Mars is the setting for this allegorical novel, in which the author brilliantly blends Christian theology, mythology, and science fiction.)

    The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury, 1950. (More fantasy than science, this collection of stories creates an eerie mesh of past and future while exploring the dark side of human nature. Bradbury counteracts the image of a menacing Mars – in this case, it’s humans from Earth who are the "invaders from outer space." Written in the 1940s, the chronicles begin in the far-flung future of 1999, as expedition after expedition leaves Earth to investigate Mars. Colonists appear, most with ideas no more lofty than starting a hot-dog stand, and with no respect for the culture they've displaced. Yet the collection ends with hope for renewal, when in 2026 a family turns away from the demise of the Earth towards a new future on Mars.)


    A Trip to Mars (1910) - this four-minute, black and white film produced by Thomas Edison was the first "movie" about Mars. A professor discovers that when he mixes two magical powders he has the power to reverse gravity. Some of the powder falls on him, and he is lifted up, flying through the sky until he finally falls down on the surface of Mars. He escapes some gnarly-limbed trees only to fall over a ridge and land on the lip of a giant Martian. The giant exhales and blows the professor into the air, then catches him, again and again, until the professor is propelled back to Earth. After crash landing back in his laboratory, the professor tries to destroy the powder only to wind up combining them again. The final shot shows the professor sitting on the floor of his chaotically spinning laboratory.

    Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938) - the follow-up to the hit serial Flash Gordon released in 1936. Flash and his crew are on Mars battling the evils of Ming the Merciless and a dastardly queen. While the script originally called for the set to be planet Mongo, the impact of Orson Welles' radio broadcast of War of the Worlds caused studio executives to change the location to the Red Planet to ride the Martian wave of popularity.

    Invaders from Mars (1953) – a classic 1950's low-budget sci-fi movie, the first of numerous invasion films. It tells the story of a Martian invasion through a child's eyes.

    The War of the Worlds (1953) - this is the first major motion picture based on H.G. Wells' classic novel, and it marks a milestone in the history of science fiction cinema. Although poetic license is taken - the location is changed from England in 1890 to California in 1953, and the famous Martian war machines are replaced by ominous flying saucers - it remains essentially true to Wells' original work and remains one of the few sci-fi films that shows a mass invasion of aliens.

    My Favorite Martian (1963-1966) – TV sit-com starring Ray Walston as a lovable Martian with antennae growing from his head who can disappear at will, and Bill Bixby as his Earthling host. A delightful alternative to the monsters from outer space theme that pervaded 1950s sci-fi films.

    Capricorn One (1978) – a conspiracy movie in which astronauts scheduled for the first manned mission to Mars are removed from the ship at the last minute for safety reasons. The astronauts are then forced to participate in a fake landing on a specially designed set in the desert.

    Invaders from Mars (1986) - this big budget movie remake of the 1953 classic fails to achieve the stark, paranoid mood and eerie atmosphere of the original, but it is equally entertaining and offers top-notch special effects.

    Total Recall (1990) - Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as an Earthbound construction worker who is haunted by a dream about Mars. He buys a virtual vacation at Rekall Inc. But something goes wrong with the memory implant and he becomes a secret agent fighting an evil Mars dictator.

    Mars Attacks! (1996) – an all-star, big-budget sci-fi comedy more about Martians than Mars, it is based on the bubble gum cards of the 1950s in which we see Martians invade Earth.

    Rocket Man (1997) – a comedy for the whole family. Oddball scientist Fred Z. Randall (Harland Williams) is nobody's idea of an astronaut. But he turns out to be NASA's only hope when the first manned mission to Mars comes up one man short. Kids will like it for the things you expect from a Disney movie, but adults will find this one funny as well.

    Mission to Mars (2000) - the first manned mission to Mars goes terribly awry, and a search and rescue operation is sent to determine what happened. Although the rusty red Martian landscape is realistically reproduced, the movie becomes something of a farce with a robotic alien creature.

    Red Planet (2000) - It’s the year 2050 and Earth is hopelessly polluted. A team of astronauts is sent on the first manned mission to Mars to scout out sites for a colony which will save humanity, but they discover a life-form which could prove fatal. Poor acting but good special effects.

    WEBSITES (Mars Timeline: includes facts as well as fiction.) (The Planet Mars in Ancient Myth and Religion.) (Mars Library - Mars Science, Mars History, Mars in Myth and Science Fiction, Mars Exploration - a comprehensive online illustrated guide to the red planet!) (Planet Mars in Popular Culture – literature, radio and film.) (H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, complete e-text.) (War of the Worlds Study Guide.) (Listen to a Real Audio or MP3 version of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre production of War of the Worlds, the famous radio broadcast that created a panic on October 30, 1938.)


    These pages are a continuous work in progress.
    Copyright © 2000- by Teri Ann Berg Olsen
    All rights reserved.


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