Evidence for Water on Mars and What Lovecraft Thought of the Red Planet

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Martian Landscape photographed by Pathfinder (NASA)

On 28 September 2015 NASA announced some strong evidence that liquid water exists on Mars. Essentially, imaging spectrometer data have detected the presence of hydrated minerals, which appear on the slopes. These minerals appear as dark streaks that are darker during the warm seasons but fade during the cooler seasons. These down flow streaks or flows, called recurring slope lineae, are indicative of briny water. The high concentration of salts, primarily magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate, essentially act as deicing road salts,  keeping the water from freezing in the icy cold atmosphere of Mars.

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High Resolution Imaging of Martian Terrain; the dark streaks are slope lineae and indicate the presence of water (NASA)

Of course the presence of liquid water on Mars and/or immediately under its surface may be an indication that it may harbor life unique to that planet. The potential for life on Mars was initially seriously considered in 1877 when the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli identified dark, lines or markings around the planet, calling them “canali” or canals. By 1896 the American astronomer Percival Lowell put forth incredible hypotheses about Mars, including one that the canals transport water from the polar caps to the Martian cities.

According to Lovecraft’s article “Is Mars an Inhabited World?” (Collected Essays of H.P. Lovecraft, Volume 3: Science, edited by S.T. Joshi) Lowell proposed that the dark colored canals increase in width during the summer due to increased vegetative growth along the canal banks. Overall, Lovecraft called the idea of life on Mars as “…mere speculation, so it is left to the fancy of the reader to form mental pictures of the population of Mars, or any more distant planet.”

It is interesting to note that Lovecraft also states in his writings on Mars that polariscopic (a means of identifying minerals through the use of optics) observations of the planet by Prof. Wm. Pickering and others clearly identified the general absence of liquid water on Mars. These same observers noted that the fringes of the Martian polar ice caps appear to melt during the warmer season.  These observations led to the hypothesis that Mars may be inhibited and that the canals transport water to populated areas across the planet. Unfortunately, the majority of these canals were optical illusions – the result of the human eye to link or connect markings or patterns together. This is explicitly shown below when Lowell’s observational sketches of Mars are compared with high resolution photographs of the planet taken by the Hubble Space Telescope (see below).

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Comparing Lowell’s sketches of Mars with photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope (www.faculty.virginia.edu)

In his literature, Lovecraft mentions Mars only once – in the tale “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” co-written by E. Hoffmann Price. In the story Randolph Carter travels through and out of our space-time and upon returning to our solar system he “…gazed at the Cyclopean ruins that sprawl over Mars’ ruddy disc.” Obviously, Lovecraft was influenced by Lowell’s ideas of Mars harboring an ancient and dying civilization and these ruins were the remains of a once great and prosperous society.

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The next article will continue our discussion of Venus and that planet’s native beings in “In the Walls of Eryx.” Thank you – Fred.

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