No Canals, But Look At All Those Lineae!
As reported by my favorite science writer David Perlman in today’s SF Chronicle, there’s new visual evidence of running water on Mars. He describes the images recorded by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as “long dark streaks somewhat like fingers” (see why he’s my favorite science writer?).
These lineae, as they are called, are 18 inches to 15 feet wide, and extend as long as 60 feet. That’s really small – the cement pathway in my garden is 18 inches wide and the long side about thirty feet long. Here’s the way Google Earth satellite photographed it:
What if I told you I’d seen evidence of water in this photo. Would you believe me? The more important question seems to be: Do you want to?
We’ve been trying to see water on Mars almost as long as we’ve tried to see Mars. The Martian “canali” as seen and sketched by nineteenth century Italian astronomer Schiaperelli became “canals” in the mind and eyes of Percival Lowell (the Italian word “canali” can be translated as either “channels” or “canals”). At the dawn of the twentieth century, Lowell began a frenzied search for the presumably intelligent creatures who constructed them.
He’s “Dr. P” in my novel, boss and boyfriend of my character Lulu. He insists throughout the book that she see Mars exactly as he sees it – including the network of canals and the lush oases at their juncture. She doesn’t, but from fear of losing her job and her paramour, she hides the truth of her observations in a secret journal. One of the themes in the book is the subjectivity of vision.
Bill Sheehan, an amateur astronomer and professional psychiatrist who is advising me on the “science” aspects of my novel, sent me this revealing quote by Lowell: “true seeing is done with the mind from the comparatively meager material supplied us by the eye.”
Sheehan added his own scientific assessment: “the brain is not really designed to give us an unvarnished view of what’s ‘really there’ (as if that would even be possible), instead it gives us what we need.”
We must really, really need to see water on Mars – but the space age has brought about huge changes to the way we “see” distant features. Our “eyes” are now high-resolution cameras sending data to our “brain,” a sophisticated computer. Now that our tools are seemingly objective instruments, we seem to be edging closer to seeing and documenting those long-sought Martian waterways.
But the final arbiter of the objective data is still human – like the scientist on the Mars orbiter team who’s quoted in Perlman’s article as saying the new photos offer “the most compelling evidence yet for liquid water on Mars; it’s not proof but it’s compelling.”
“It’s the best evidence of water flowing on Mars to date,” another said.
“We haven’t found any good way to explain what we’re seeing without water,” a third opined.
Lowell claimed to to see details on Mars that others did not. His self-described “acute” vision might be compared to the the high-resolution camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Meanwhile another “objective” source, a different Mars orbiter, but with a lower resolution camera, disagrees. It has seen no lineae at all – who are we to believe?
Perlman himself hedges his bets on what the new photos reveal: “The water – if it is water…”
We always want to put our trust in higher resolution, whether human or machine. But the really smart humans wait for more evidence to show itself.
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