Red planet myths abound

Dedra McDowell

Be prepared.

This will be the perfect opportunity for little green men to come along, create some crop circles, abduct a few earthlings and scatter UFO debris across the country. You know, just enough of a disturbance to let us know we’re not alone.

The planet Mars is closer to Earth than it’s been in 60,000 years.

About every two years, Mars and Earth are in relatively close proximity – if 43 million miles or more can be called close. But this week Mars will only be 34 million miles away. And it won’t get any closer until the year 2287.

As the red planet veers closer, old myths about Mars resurface. Many stem from misinterpretations while others are as far out as the planet they describe.

In the 19th century, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparello recorded markings on Mars that he called “canali” – in translation, “canals.”

Percival Lowell, who founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., and studied Mars in the late 19th and early 20th century, theorized that those canals were used by life forms to transport water from polar ice caps to the planet’s desert regions.

A little more wacky was the speculation that the face on Mars was left by an ancient civilization much like the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge.

But intelligent life on Mars is unlikely.

“The biggest myth I think that was dispelled was that in the early 20th century people thought Mars might be inhabited,” Western professor Roger Scott said. “And though Mars is the most Earth-like, it would be most likely to harbor life like bacteria, not intelligent creatures.”

Still, Hollywood seems to bring in big bucks with alien movies like “Men in Black.”

And even though “Mars Attacks!” bombed at theaters, it amused some people like Nashville freshman Robin Noel.

“My favorite part of the movie was when all the little aliens were running around saying, ‘We will not hurt you!’ and they’re blowing everyone up,” Noel said.

We won’t see any of that this week, but with the right weather conditions, we’ll get a better view of Mars.

“With the naked eye, if you look toward the east at about 9:30 p.m., you should be able to see a bright orange star,” Scott said. “It will be the brightest in the sky. With a telescope, you’ll be able to see a disc-like polar cap and vague markings.”

Professor Thomas Bohuski said he didn’t think it was that strange for Mars to be so close.

“Mars is very uninteresting,” he said. “It’s not that odd for Mars to be fairly close. I think I’ve seen it twice before in my lifetime, but (Tuesday) night was the best I’ve seen it.

“With all the probes we have orbiting Mars [the Odyssey and the Mars Global Observer], we’ve grown accustomed to the clear, vivid pictures.”

He said that some people were pleased by the “vague color variations” they were able to see.

“Others were like, ‘Oh is that all?'” Bohuski said. “And that’s usually my reaction about Mars.”

Western’s physics and astronomy department and the Hilltopper Astronomy Club have been hosting public viewings of Mars at the observatory this week.

The last viewing will happen at 9:30 p.m. on the roof of the Thompson Complex Central Wing.

Reach Dedra McDowell at [email protected]