Tuesday, November 24, 2015

‘There will be no beautiful women on Mars’----and that’s official

Speculation on whether there is life on Mars and what form it might take has been going on since the planet began to be seriously studied. Writers of fiction have let their imaginations run riot, with ludicrous results, but even scientists have been guilty of groundless speculation. Two items from the Peter Haining archive —an incomplete clipping dated 1924 from the Daily Express and a chapter from The Universe in Space and Time of 1935 throw interesting light on the subject.

Back in 1924 the Daily Express published a report by a certain Monsieur Camille Flammarion, ‘the famous French astronomer’, that ‘ the people of the earth will be both shocked and disillusioned if ever they become acquainted with the Martians’. “First of all”, he states, “there will be no beautiful women there. They may be beautiful according to Martian standards, but to us they will probably look frightfully hideous.” It’s all to with the ‘rarer’ atmosphere of the planet, apparently.

Then, in 1935, another scientist, the Dutch astronomer, Professor G. Van den Bergh (pictured), included a chapter entitled ‘A Visit to Mars ‘in his The Universe in Space and Time. In this account, which has weird parallels with the adventures of the Matt Damon character in the recent movie ‘The Martian’,
‘a man, an inhabitant of the earth, succeeded in reaching Mars by rocket. He remained there a few years and evidently managed to keep alive, thanks to his good equipment and a large stock of provisions’. After a while this man returned to Earth, but was killed when his rocket crashed. It transpired that the man had kept a diary, but only a few pages could be rescued from the crash site, some of which were reproduced in the article:

October 43

It is almost midnight and most bitterly cold. In the tropics of this blessed planet too! And to think that we are more in proportion close to the sun; very shortly we shall have reached perihelion. That means a kind of extra summer…

Everything round me now is covered with a thin coat of hoar-frost; this includes the plants here in the plain, about which I wrote at length some days ago. I am sure that the planet possesses some mechanism by which they manage to absorb moisture. But my knowledge of biology or physics is too scant to enable me to understand how they can possibly do this at such a low temperature.

It is a perfect night. As the reader of this diary knows,  it nearly always cloudless here. It is only occasionally that rather thin, high clouds are visible. But of late it has been fairly damp, for this part of the Universe! The sandy ground is not so dry as it sometimes can be; we have not for a long time had any sandstorms, which certainly blot out the horizon by yellowish-brown clouds of dust…

I have not yet given a description of our sky at night, so I can do that now. Oh, I can gaze up at it at night for hours. Then I can fancy myself back on Earth for a moment. I see all the familiar constellations and stars. Look, there is the Eagle, there is Antares. And all my other old friends.  How I wish I had never set out for this dry, barren land. Tonight the Earth was not in the sky, I have not seen it for a long time, it must be in conjunction with the sun now. I cannot see it now in the daytime either, whereas as long as it is not too close to the sun, the Earth is visible to the naked eye during the day against the deep blue Martin sky. Some weeks ago I saw it last, as an evening star; since then it has been lost in the twilight. What feelings I had as I watched it through my telescope! As I saw first of all Eastern Europe, then Western Europe appearing on its crescent. As I saw it rotating on its axis in 23 hours and 20 minutes, turned a little farther every night! As I watched the fine crescent of the moon ( the real moon, I mean) travelling round it at night! A feeling of melancholy, of infinite longing, then possessed me. How I should like to go back there again! Back to the place where I belong, to which I am linked by a hundred bonds. Back to Mother Earth. But now she is not there. I hope to see her again soon, when, as a morning star she escapes from the dawn…

October 44. The sun is rising. A beautiful dawn, the same as on Earth. It certainly is perishing cold. The thermometer registers 22 F below zero. But yet the hoar-frost at once evaporates in this dry air from the ground and from the plants. The sun ascends into the sky. It is getting perceptibly warmer. The solar disk is certainly much smaller here than on Earth, not much more than 20 minutes of arc, but I am in the tropics, it is not very long since the equinox, and the sun rises almost straight up into the sky…

I walk up a little hill rising from the wide plain. It is still a peculiar sensation, even after years, to dance lightly up a slope, owing to the low gravitation here. Up here I have a fine view. The plain below, with its cactus-like plants stretches away to the horizon. Everything in it has the same almost uniform greyish-greenish blue colour. It is now the best time of year for the plants: the short while that they can flourish. Little as it is, there is at least some moisture in the air. The large polar cap at the South Pole, where the vapour in the atmosphere condenses as a thin film of hoar-frost, is now, more than a month after the equinox, evaporating quickly as a result of the rise in temperature. The whole atmosphere of the planet is getting moister.

But that will not last long. The South Pole is approaching a perihelion summer. Very soon the greater part of the vast polar cap will have evaporated---less and lesser water vapour will be absorbed by the atmosphere, while the North Pole cap is already growing at the approach of winter and the liberated  water vapour is already beginning to be fixed there. Our plants will now, as at every perihelion, have a particularly difficult battle to fight: towards the end of January, a month after the summer solstice of the Southern hemisphere, the South cap will have disappeared entirely, then the atmosphere will be drier than dry, and the sun’s almost perpendicular rays will pour there scorching heat on our poor, withering plants in the afternoons. And soon they will have shrivelled up this whole plain and given it a withered, purplish-red look. Only in the middle of the plain, where it dips down and where the plants are rather more sheltered, will they be able to keep fresh a little longer. But the plants themselves do not die. A better time comes for them towards April. But in February everything looks dead. Then the wind blows the yellow-brown desert sand about. It is then wild and desolate here.

To be continued…