Seeing Is Believing

High on Mars Hill, Flagstaff, Arizona, Percival Lowell's observations of Mars in the 1890s and its supposed canals created Martian fever and birthed an exotic world of red fiction.

Sarah Dillon begins a new series revelling in the many Mars' of imagination, science & history.
We are the Martians, perhaps the only consciousness the Red Planet has ever had. The ancients wove their own mythological stories about Mars, its dim redness and uncertain path visible to the naked eye. In the 19th Century new, powerful telescopes scrutinized the red planet & astronomers considered the possibilities of life on Mars. There was, in fact, a kind of mapping war to name & identify features on the Red Planet. When the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli produced a series of maps in the 1870's featuring dark channels or 'canali' , a powerful story began to develop. Mars was a dying planet, older, perhaps inhabited . Then, from the 1890's, American amateur astronomer Percival Lowell, using his state of the art telescope in his brand new observatory high up in Flagstaff, Arizona, convinced millions that this 'dying' planet was home to a doomed civilization struggling to maintain life through an elaborate system of canals. Lowell was a supreme popularizer of science, commanding huge audiences despite the severe doubts of many in the scientific community. Worldwide, Lowell's myth sparked volumes of popular fiction & when failed salesman Edgar Rice Burroughs penned the first of his Barsoom adventures in 1911 Martian fantasy truly took off. Its literary spell remains unbroken. Even after the Mariner probes & Viking Lander finally revealed Mars was red but dead, the Old Mars of our dreams would return. Sarah Dillon travels to Flagstaff & the analogue Martian landscape of ochre Arizonan desert & talks to a host of Red Planet writers.

Producer: Mark Burman.

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43 minutes

Last on

Mon 6 Mar 2017 11:00

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William Shatner on Mars

William Shatner takes you on a fact-fuelled cosmic journey to the mysterious red planet.