Episode 5: Canals on Mars

Percival Lowell, Science Fiction, and the Canals on Mars


Artist's Impression of Mars - Words To That Effect Podcast Ep5 - Canals on Mars

(c) ESO / M. Kornmesser Artist’s impression of Mars about four billion years ago.

For as long as humans have been looking at the night sky, the planet Mars has fascinated us. But while astronomers had charted the movements of the planet for hundreds of years, there had never been a chance to see the planet in any detail. Then, in 1877, everything changed. After centuries of developments, telescopes were finally powerful enough to reach such a distance. Not only that but, because Mars was at its closest point to Earth (something that only happens every 15-17 years), astronomers had the first chance in human history of really observing the surface of Mars.

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When an Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, saw what appeared to be unnaturally straight lines crossing the planet, there was speculation as to whether these “canali” could, in fact, be artificial canals on Mars. In the U.S., an American astronomer named Percival Lowell investigated and promoted the idea and his vision of a Martian society using these canals to distribute water across their drought-plagued planet captivated the public imagination. Very soon everyone had an opinion about Mars. Lowell became a household name. Life on Mars was front page news.

Lowell's Mars - Words To That Effect Podcast Ep5 - Canals on Mars

Lowell’s Map of the Canals

In this episode I look at why the planet captivates us, how the canals on Mars came to dominate the public imagination, and how has these ideas have been portrayed in science fiction over the decades. I am joined by Dr Mary Bourke, a planetary geomorphologist, to discuss the surface of Mars and whether the planet once held or may still hold life.

Percival_Lowell_observing_Venus_from_the_Lowell_Observatory_in_1914 (Words To That Effect Podcast Ep5 - Canals on Mars)

Lowell in his observatory in 1914

Guest Profile

Dr Mary Bourke is a planetary geomorphologist based in the Department of Geography, Trinity College Dublin.

Her blog can be found here

Dr Bourke also suggests the following links if you are interested to learn more:



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The Jimmy Cake

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Tracks (in order):

Last Breath (Spectre & Crown)

Jetta’s Place (Spectre & Crown)

Red Tony (Spectre & Crown)

Hugs for Bunny (Spectre & Crown)


Works Mentioned

H.G. Wells: War of the Worlds

Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Barsoom Novels

Camille Flammarion

Robert Cromie: A Plunge Into Space

Alexanader Bogdanov: Red Star

Kurt Lasswitz: Auf Zwei Planeten

Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles


Want to know more about science fiction? Episode 3 (listen here) is all about science fiction, and this article is all about literary genres.

If you enjoy the episode and want to find out how to support the show then click here for more information.

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