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Word Art: Mars [Astronomy Series]

I am not a scientist and have no immediate plans to become one, so when gathering the information to fill in the spaces on the planetary series I’m more interested in the cultural implications of the planets than I am in the statistics of the bodies themselves.  Mars is a good example of this.



Rusted red planet named for gods of war (Ares, Mars, Nergal, Mangala) or for the element of fire.

Once water may have flowed there. There is the slightest of chances that it may flow still, in limited quantities.

We definitely see polar caps, which do have frozen water but also have frozen carbon dioxide.

A flurry of speculation that the place had intelligent life at one time sprang from a single mistranslated word.

An Italian astronomer named Giovanni Schiaparelli took advantage of the clear view provided by a perehelic opposition of Mars to create a detailed map of what he could see through his telescope.

He saw a series of dark lines which he called canali, the Italian word for ‘channel’ or groove.

When his findings were translated to English, the word became ‘canals’ and we were off.

Percival Lowell published some three books detailing his theories that the inhabitants had constructed canals to transport water from the polar ice caps in a desperate effort to save their dying world.

H. G. Wells took that notion in turn, and ran with it in what was at the time a novel variation of the popular genre of the ‘invasion story’ using Martians as the invading force.

It was then adapted for radio some forty years later by Orson Welles; the panic that resulted remains legendary.

The popular assertion in the various fictional depictions of life on Mars was that such life was far in advance of our own.

Now what fragmentary evidence we have of any such life suggests that if were ever was life there, it was at best mere microbes that ended up trapped in rock and fosillized. [sic]

It is also quite possible that the traces of what seem to be a form of life may in fact be mere illusion, formations that resemble life but are formed as the rock is formed.

The human tendency in the brain to impose patterns upon randomness had many quite certain that a certain formation in the Cydonian region was a monument in the shape of a human (or perhaps Martian) face.

Upon more detailed examination, it turned out that the ‘face’ on the surface as, as the canali turned out to be, nothing more than an optical illusion.

Mars, of all the planets beyond our own, does seem to have the most of our hopes and fears projected upon it.

There is even a school of thought that one day we will remake the place into the sort of place we can inhabit freely.

We would need to thicken the air in some way, inducing a greenhouse effect in order to make the planet a greenhouse.

Water would have to be dragged in from asteroids and we may even end up building canals to distribute the ice as it melts.

(Would we call those born in subsequent generations ‘Martians’?)

Right now, even as these words are written, we are exploring Mars with robots.

Okay, even if the Spirit rover is currently stuck in soft ground, the matter still remains that WE ARE EXPLORING MARS WITH ROBOTS!

The surface of Mars is roughly equivalent to the surface of dry land on Earth, so these global explorers will map as much of the land as they can.

We now even use the surface of Mars as sort of a supplement to our terrestrial observatories by using the rovers we have on site to look up at the sky from that particular angle.

We have even seen the moons of Mars pass over the sun–the differences in size are such that they are seen as transits rather than eclipses.

The two moons of Mars are called Phobos and Deimos, after the sons of Ares, the Greek god of war (who was, of course, known to the Romans as Mars.)

Even the moons have made their way into our fiction–both Swift and Voltaire made reference to them, and this was even before they’d been properly discovered.

(In their honor, two craters on Deimos were given the names ‘Swift’ and ‘Voltaire’.)

These moons appear to be asteroids that fell sway to the gravitational pull of the planet.

A year to Mars lasts two years on Earth, and the seasons it goes through are also twice as long.

A day there is roughly the same on Earth.

Perhaps that is why we dream of one day moving ourselves there–even as small as the place is, even with fainter gravity and no magnetism to speak of it still, of all the planets in this particular solar system, feels the most to us as if it might be home.

Perhaps one day we will be the ones to cross the divide between these two worlds, as we far so long speculated that one day would be done unto us.

The trickiest part was coming up with turns of phrase that would allow for very short words just where the edge of the image met the edge of the circle.  I seem to have managed.  And, yes, I did shift a bit in tone when I went all enthusiastic about the whole Exploring Mars With Robots thing but what can I say?  It still blows my mind that I can say that out loud and be telling the truth.

Prints of this work are available here.

The original is not for sale.

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