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Prologue: The Martians That Never Were

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Part of the Astronomers' Universe book series (ASTRONOM)


“Little memory, no genius, much patience, and an everlasting curiosity about everything,” was how Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli (Fig. 1.1) once described himself, but that self-deprecating review of his own intellectual capabilities belied his contribution to nineteenth-century astronomy. Although an observer possessed of keen perceptive abilities, he was also nearsighted and colorblind, crucial characteristics that likely influenced his judgment and left a particular imprint on how we now view the reliability of the human eye and brain in making useful astronomical observations.

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  1. 1.

    1907 letter to Professor Giovanni Marchesini, director of the Review of Philosophy, Pedagogy and Other Sciences, quoted in Mazzucato (2006).

  2. 2.

    Bianucci, P. 1980. Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli, L’Astronomia, 6, 45.

  3. 3.

    1878, ‘Osservazioni e fisiche sull’asse di rotazione a sulla topografia del pianeta Marte,’ Memoria Prima, Reale Accademia dei Lincei; 1930, Le Opere di G. V. Schiaparelli, Milan, (reprint, New York, 1969), 1, 11–12.

  4. 4.

    1882, Proceedings of the Meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society, The Observatory, 5, 135–137.

  5. 5.

    1878, “Osservazioni e fisiche sull’asse di rotazione a sulla topografia del pianeta Marte,” Memoria Prima, Reale Accademia dei Lincei; Opere, 1, 61.

  6. 6.

    1889; “Ueber die Beobachtungen Erscheinungen auf der Oberflache des Planeten Mars”, Himmel und Erde, Vol. 1, Berlin; also in Opere, 2, 23.

  7. 7.

    Opere, 1, 164.

  8. 8.

    1898, Memoirs of the British Astronomical Association, 6, 102.

  9. 9.

    Knobel, 284.

  10. 10.

    ‘Sulla Rotazione e Sulla Costituzione del Pianeta Mercurio’, in Opere, 5, 333–343.

  11. 11.

    1906, Mars and its Mystery, Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 59.

  12. 12.

    Corrispondenza, 1, 153.

  13. 13.

    1890, Report of the meeting of the association held December 31, 1890, Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 1, 112; emphasis in the original.

  14. 14.

    1906, Mars And Its Canals, London: MacMillan & Co., 365.

  15. 15.

    Howe (1819–1910) was an American author and social activist who advocated for both women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery. As a poet, she is best remembered for writing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (1861).

  16. 16.

    See, e.g., Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty (1990); Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (1993–1999) and 2312 (2012); and S. M. Stirling’s In the Courts of the Crimson Kings (2008).

  17. 17.

    1898, The War of the Worlds, London: Chapman and Hall, 3–4.

  18. 18.

    Letter of August 29, 1909, quoted in Antoniadi, E. M., 1930, The Planet Mars; translated by Patrick Moore, Shaldon, 1975, Devon: Keith Reid Limited, 45.

  19. 19.

    Knobel, 284.

  20. 20.

    Despite this conclusion, Schiaparelli was somewhat vindicated by spacecraft photographs that showed roughly linear, but entirely naturally occurring, features on some of the same parts of Mars for which he drew canali on his maps. q.v. Hartmann, W. K. 2003. A Traveler’s Guide to Mars, New York: Workman Publishing, 44–49.

  21. 21.

    Planets And Perception, 276.

  22. 22.

    “The Reliability of Visual Observing,” November 30, 2007.

  23. 23.

    Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 67(398), 271.


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  3. Mazzucato, M. T. (2006). Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli. Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, 100(June), 114.

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  4. Schiaparelli, G. V. (1893). La Vita Sul Pianeta Marte. Natura ed Arte, 2(5), 393–404.

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Barentine, J.C. (2021). Prologue: The Martians That Never Were. In: Mystery of the Ashen Light of Venus. Astronomers' Universe. Springer, Cham.

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