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The Man on the Moon and Martian Canals

Photo: Percival Lowell in 1914, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham, “Why Words Matter: Sense and Nonsense in Science.” This is the second article in the series. Find the full series so far here. Professor Thomas’s recent book is Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design (Discovery Institute Press).

I wrote here yesterday about certain notional terms and “airy nothings” in science. A less well-known example, but one with a notable relevance to modern cosmological speculation (and in a subtler sense to the materialist belief system as a whole), arose when the 17th-century French writer Bernard de Fontenelle expressed the belief that there really was a man on the moon — and a whole civilisation to boot, if you please. In his 1686 work Entretiens sur la Pluralité des Mondes (Conversations Concerning the Plurality of Worlds), Fontenelle presented an imaginary scenario of a conversation in a country garden between a philosopher versed in astronomy and an enquiring hostess. The philosopher claims in tones of self-assured inerrancy that the telescopes of the late 17th century revealed a moon covered with seas, lakes, mountains, and valleys, even though, he concedes, it was not possible (yet) to observe lunar creatures. The similarity of the terrestrial and lunar landscapes, however, provided sufficient proof that sentient life must exist on the Moon, concluded the philosopher with orotund self-satisfaction.

In this early example of what turned out to be something of a conceptual Rorschach blot test in practice, Fontenelle’s wish had clearly become father to his thought. The imaginary notion had morphed into a “factoid,” a contention without empirical foundation or any locatable referent in the tangible world but one nevertheless held to be true by the person who proposes it. I confess that scientists of the 20th and 21st centuries sometimes give me the impression of being the Fontenelles de nos jours in their continuing quests to find evidence of life on unforgivingly hostile planets.

Alfred Russel Wallace Re-Enters the Fray

In 1905 the American astronomer Percival Lowell was still capable of succumbing to a subvariant of the man-on-the moon myth by publishing a perfectly serious book on the subject of Mars and its supposed “canals.” Lowell followed in Fontenelle’s footsteps by wrongly identifying planetary indentations as artificial constructions fashioned by “aliens,” yet even at the time there was little to justify this belief. Alfred Russel Wallace had given powerful, scientifically sound arguments against such a notion in his Man’s Place in the Universe (1903) and The World of Life (1910), where he deployed his technical knowledge about the thinness of the Martian atmosphere and planet cooling ratios relative to distances from the sun, which, Wallace concluded, made Mars too cold to allow water to flow. The supposed “canals” could not be artificial constructions made by Martian denizens of the red planet. This did not stop Lowell from advancing quite seriously his ideas on the artificial, presumably alien-built, canals of Mars.

False Friends

A key reason as to why Lowell persisted in adhering to a faulty theory boils down to the use of language, in particular the misunderstanding of the term “canali” used by the Italian scientist Schiaperelli to describe his observations of the Martian surface. Canali, in Italian, means “conduits,” or “ridges”: in English, however, “canals” have connotations of man-made structures. This is an example of the error well-known to linguists as a “false friend” (faux ami). Lowell — and others after him — allowed themselves to believe in a concept present only in language, over against the testimony of the real world around them. Only the images of the Mariner 4 probe in 1965 eventually put an end to the belief in intelligent Martian life.

Yet the desire to believe in extra-terrestrial life endures, despite the continuing failure of increasingly sophisticated probes to pick up evidence of organic life in the seeming infinity of exoplanets identifiable by our latest technology. To an old hand like myself, waiting for news of life elsewhere in the universe has felt rather like reading about the muted and unfulfilled heroines of an Anita Brookner novel and waiting for a climax — biogenic rather than sexual of course — which frustratingly never comes. In fact, such constant deferrals of gratification on the extra-terrestrial front make me sorely tempted to view the term “extra-terrestrial life” itself as an empty signifier. I can of course perfectly well understand why scientists should wish to find life elsewhere in the universe — it supposedly having arisen spontaneously without a discernible creator — but must point out that the complete lack of evidence for this working hypothesis makes it untenable without a dogged faith in a materialist creed. We are in the realm of hope supported by words rather than that of fact supported by evidence. 

Next, “Dawkinsian Mythology.”

Neil Thomas

Neil Thomas is a Reader Emeritus in the University of Durham, England and a longtime member of the British Rationalist Association. He studied Classical Studies and European Languages at the universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before taking up his post in the German section of the School of European Languages and Literatures at Durham University in 1976. There his teaching involved a broad spectrum of specialisms including Germanic philology, medieval literature, the literature and philosophy of the Enlightenment and modern German history and literature. He also taught modules on the propagandist use of the German language used both by the Nazis and by the functionaries of the old German Democratic Republic. He published over 40 articles in a number of refereed journals and a half dozen single-authored books, the last of which were Reading the Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and Wirnt von Gravenberg's 'Wigalois'. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He also edited a number of volumes including Myth and its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies at the Millennium (1999). He was the British Brach President of the International Arthurian Society (2002-5) and remains a member of a number of learned societies.



airy nothingsAlfred Russel WallacealiensAnita BrooknerBernard de FontenelleEntretiens sur la Pluralité des Mondesextraterrestrialsfaux amiItalianMan’s Place in the UniverseMariner 4MarsMoonnotional termsorganic lifePercival LowellThe World of LifeWhy Words Matter: Sense and Nonsense in Science (series)