A Mythos of Mars

For many years Mars has been seen as a planet ripe for exploration.  And as our understanding of the red planet grew and expanded, a few of the fantastic claims and stories of the Martian surface were left behind by discovery.  Nonetheless, speculation about Mars was one of the first thought exercises humanity was allowed to engage in during the early stages of Science Fiction.  When Edgar Rice Burroughs first wrote the story “A Princess of Mars” he was writing about a vast unknown planet where any number of civilizations could potentially exist.  And a number of theories sprang up both before and after his popular novel series.

A Princess of Mars centers around the fictionalized Martian civilization known as Barsoom.  The planet is a massive world with vast cities, flying machines, and strange creatures designed to bring the alien landscape to life.  At the time of Burroughs’ writing in 1912, all of these were considered possibilities.  But there was evidence proposed by one famous inventor that claimed Mars was inhabited by intelligent beings utilizing radio communication – Nikola Tesla.

From his lab in Colorado Springs, Nikola Tesla was up late working on his radio receiver when suddenly he noted a series of unusual signals coming from a source unknown.  Realizing he may be on the brink of a major discovery, he scoured for potential sources and soon came to believe the signals were emanating from one of Earth’s two closest neighbors – either Venus or Mars.  The clicks appeared almost like Morse code.  In fact, the phenomenon described by Tesla seemed very intelligent indeed.  In time Tesla’s mystery signal was lost, but his claims tarnished his reputation in the critical eye of the newspapers.

But he wasn’t the first to have a Eureka moment in regards to the red planet.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a wide margin of the public believed there to be artificial structures on the surface of Mars in the form of Martian canals.  The canals were thought to be designed to transport water from underground reservoirs to civilizations of Martians living in cities.  The man responsible for spotting the canals was famed astronomer  Giovanni Schiaparelli.  Since then, the artificial canals have been lost in the Mars narrative for the most part.

In recent years, the potential for life on Mars has seen a resurgence in the media.  Shortly after discovering water on the Lunar surface, it was confirmed that there is also a great deal of frozen water on Mars as well.  The once thought barren and inhospitable Martian surface has been cracked, if not shattered by the idea of extremophiles capable of surviving in even the harshest of environments.  Some have even suggested that a meteorite from the red planet, ALH84001 contains fossilized evidence of bacteria that existed millions of years ago on Mars.  Is there life on Mars?  We may not know for some time.  And yet the romantic image of the Martian dunes and rocky mountains has stayed in our imaginations for centuries.