The Snows of Olympus: A Garden on Mars

The Snows of Olympus: A Garden on Mars

by Arthur C. Clarke


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393039115
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/28/1995
Pages: 120
Product dimensions: 10.06(w) x 10.39(h) x 0.65(d)

About the Author

Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) was one of the supreme science fiction writers of the century and achieved vast popularity with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which extended into a series of four books & two short stories. Other notable works include his Rama series of novels and the Hugo Award-winning short story The Star. Clarke augmented his fame later on in the 1980s, from being the host of several television shows such as Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World.

Date of Birth:

December 16, 1917

Date of Death:

March 19, 2008

Place of Birth:

Minehead, Somerset, England

Place of Death:

Sri Lanka


1948, King's College, London, first-class honors in Physics and Mathematics

Read an Excerpt

Prelude to Mars

Viewed under suitable conditions, few sights can compare for instant beauty and growing grandeur with Mars as presented by the telescope. Framed in the blue of space, there floats before the observer's gaze a seeming miniature of his own Earth, yet changed by translation to the sky. Within its charmed circle of light he marks apparent continents and seas, now ramifying into one another, now stretching in unique expanse over wide tracts of the disc, and capped at their poles by dazzling ovals of white . . .

. . . And very vivid are the tints, so salient and so unlike that their naming in words conveys scant idea of their concord to the eye. Rose ochre dominates the lighter regions, while a robin's egg blue colours the darker; and both are set off and emphasized by the icy whiteness of the caps . . . In some parts of the light expanses the ochre prevails alone; in others the rose deepens to a brick-red, suffusing the surface with the glow of a warm, lade afternoon . . .

So rhapsodized the US astronomer Percival Lowell in his Mars as the Abode of Life (1908), and this lyrical passage can serve as both inspiration and warning. At the very least it suggests that there was something peculiar about Lowell's eyesight: 'the blue of space' indeed!

Anyone who has never observed Mars through a telescope cannot imagine what a frustrating target the planet usually is. I flatly refuse to let my friends look at it (even through my 14in [36cm] Celestron) because disappointment is inevitable. Admittedly my locale in the middle of a large city is not the best observing site, but the last time I looked at Mars, though it was almost overhead, all I could see was a fuzzy pink disc showing no markings whatsoever. Not even the polar cap was visible.

At its very closest, Mars is only one-fiftieth the apparent diameter of the Moon. To the naked eye, the Moon shows a fair amount of detail, and a magnification of fifty is a very modest figure. So it might be thought that, even with a small instrument, one could see a good deal on an apparently Moon-sized Mars. Unfortunately, sheer magnifying power cannot help very much. Unlike the Moon, the disc of Mars shows very little contrasting detail; pace Lowell, it is a mottled patchwork of subtle shades, merging imperceptibly into one another. The only realty outstanding features are the polar caps, waxing and waning with seasons twice as long as Earth's.

To make matters even worse, when Mars is at its closest we lie directly between it and the Sun; as every amateur photographer knows, such lighting conditions give a 'flat' and often misleading image. While the Moon goes through its phases we can watch the long shadows sweep across plain and crater, and get a vivid - almost 3-D - impression of its topography, but if you look at the full Moon through any telescope (an ordinary pair of binoculars will suffice) it appears completely flat: you would never guess the existence of its magnificent mountain ranges. So it is with the full Mars: from our position closer to the Sun we can get a side view only when the planet is too far away for good observation. And although large telescopes can employ powers of several thousand - making Mars appear as big as a beachball at arm's-length-images magnified that much are so fuzzy as to be almost useless.(*) The Earth's atmosphere interposes a continually shifting veil between our eyes and the Universe around us. Even on the most crystal-clear night, astronomers are like fish trying to look at the strange world of dry land through the trembling interface of air and water.

This state of affairs gravely limited Mars studies until the opening of the Space Age, and was responsible for one of the strangest episodes in the entire history of astronomy - the Great Canal Delusion. It all began in 1877, with the mistranslation of one word, and lasted for almost a century.

Because the orbit of Mars is somewhat eccentric. its distance during its closest approach to Earth ('opposition') varies widely, ranging between fifty and one hundred million kilometres. An unusually favourable opposition occurred in 1877, so every astronomer interested in the planet took advantage of the exceptional close--up. One such was the US astronomer Asaph Hall, using a 26in (66cm) refractor at the US Naval Observatory in Washington. In August 1877 he discovered that Mars has two tiny moons, quickly named Phobos (Fear) and Deimos (Panic) after the attendants of the Roman God of War.

Much more sensational, however, was the news from Milan, where the distinguished Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported that the planet appeared to be cries-crossed with a network of narrow lines. His 1877 map showed them as well defined bands or streaks, most running north-south. However, they were not particularly straight and certainly gay. e no impression of artificiality. Schiaparelli labelled them with the noncommittal name 'channels' (canal)), but this was promptly translated into English as 'canals' - a word with altogether different resonances. Canals implied builders, and so the 'Martians' were born.

Their midwife - or at least their nurse - was the brilliant scion of a famous New England family. Thanks to the energy and literary skills of Percival Lowell, probably most of the world's reading public became acquainted with his ideas on Mars, though usually at second hand through sensational newspaper reports. When Schiaparelli reported his 'channels' in 1877, Lowell was only twenty-two. He spent the next six years in the family business- running a cotton mill, managing trust funds and building up such a substantial fortune that before he was thirty he was able to do anything he wished. For the succeeding decade he travelled around the world, and became so fascinated by the Far East that he rented a-house in Tokyo. After only three weeks in the country he wrote home: 'I am beginning to talk Japanese like a native (of America).' He was in fact a remarkable linguist-he had been fluent in French at ten and in Latin at eleven - and the head of the US Legation in Tokyo wrote that 'he has learned Japanese faster than I ever saw any man learn a language'. Lowell made such an impression on his compatriots that he was asked to 'read the first US Mission to Korea, which he did with great success. If he had not turned to astronomy he could well have become a diplomat; indeed, he published more books about Japan and Korea than he ever did about Mars.

His oriental excursions ended when he was in his !ate thirties, and thereafter Mars dominated his life. In October 1894 the planet would make another of its closer approaches to the Earth - and, as Schiaparelli and Hall had done seventeen years earlier, Lowell was determined to make the most of the opportunity. He decided to install the best telescope he could obtain (an excellent 24in [61cm1 refractor) under the clearest possible skies. Lowell was one of the first astronomers to emphasize the vital importance of locating observatories at sites with the most perfect seeing, usually on high mountaintops. He chose Flagstaff, Arizona, at an altitude of over two kilometres, starting a trend that has continued to this day. But even the best terrestrial site still has half the atmosphere above it, and good seeing can never be guaranteed.

Imagine that you are looking at a tennis ball suspended several metres away, and that you are tying to make an accurate drawing of the faint smudges that someone has daubed on it. That is essentially what Lowell and his assistants were trying to do during their observations of Mars. No wonder that, straining their eyes to record details at the very limits of vision - and beyond - they 'saw, features that existed only in their imaginations.

Lowell went to his grave in 1916 convinced that Mars was covered with a network of narrow lines, most of them following great circles, and many intersecting in dark spots which he christened 'oases' - because that is precisely what he thought they were. The charts he drew after two decades of observation bear an uncanny resemblance to something that did not exist until long after his death: a map of the Earth's airlines. No natural process could have produced patterns of such geometrical regularity. Whatever they were, they could only be artificial.

To quote Lowell's own words from Mars (1896):

We have been led to regard it probable that upon the surface of Mars we see the effects of local intelligence . . . There is an apparent dearth of water upon the planet's surface, and therefore, if beings of sufficient intelligence inhabited it, they would have to resort-to irrigation to Support life . . . there turns out to the a network of markings covering the disc precisely counterparting what a system of irrigation would look like; and lastly, there is a set of spots placed where we should expect to find the lands thus artificially fertilized, and behaving as such constructed oases should. All this, of course, may be a set of coincidences; but the probability points the other way . . . The evidence of handicraft, if such it be, points to a highly intelligent and scientific mind behind it. Irrigation, unscientifically conducted, would not give us such truly wonderful mathematical fitness in the several parts as we there behold. A mind of no mean order would seem to have presided over the system we see - a mind certainly of considerably more comprehensiveness than that which presides over the various-departments of our own public works.

Party politics, at all events, have had no part in them; for the system is planet-wide. Quite possibly, such Martian folk are possessed of inventions of which we have not dreamed, and with them electrophones and kinetoscopes are things of a bygone past, preserved with veneration in museums as relics of the clumsy contrivances of the simple childhood of the race. Certainly what we see hints at the existence of beings who are in advance of, not behind us, in the journey of life.

What a pyramid of speculation, on a basis which was not merely flimsy but completely nonexistent! The key phrases in Lowell's conclusion are 'we see the effects. . .', 'we there behold. . .', 'what we see. . .'. But only Lowell and his disciples were able to 'see, or 'behold' the planet-wide artefacts of the Martian engineers.

Even in Lowell's lifetime his observations came under attack by eminent astronomers with equally fine-instruments in equally good locations. They reported that, when the atmosphere became stable for a few precious moments, they could see the disc of Mars crowded with so much detail that it was impossible for eye and brain to grasp it all. But in those rare instants of 'perfect' seeing there was no sign of the canals!

A partial explanation of this curious phenomenon was given in 1903 by the distinguished UK astronomer Walter Maunder.(*) His counter to the Lowellian fantasy was as simple as it was effective. He took a group of English schoolboys and asked them to copy a picture of Mars - from which all lines resembling canals had been carefully removed. Nevertheless, many of the resulting drawings showed linear markings, and Maunder concluded that the canals were due to 'the integration by the eye of minute details too small to be separately and distinctly defined . . . It seems a thousand pities that all those magnificent theories of human habitation, canal construction . . . and the like are based upon lines which our experiments compel us to declare nonexistent.'

There can now be no doubt that Maunder's explanation was correct, though Lowell predictably ridiculed what he called the 'Small Boy Theory,. But on one point the UK astronomer was grossly unfair to his US colleague. Time and again Lowell had made the point that any hypothetical Martians would not be remotely 'human' because they would have evolved under very different conditions of gravity, atmosphere and climate. He ended his book Mars with words which are perhaps even more valid now than when they were written a century ago:

If astronomy teaches anything, it teaches that man is but a detail in the evolution of the Universe, and that resemblant though diverse details are inevitably to be expected in the host of orbs around him. He learns that, though he will probably never find his double anywhere, he is destined to discover any number of cousins scattered through space.

While hosting the television series The Mysterious World of Arthur C. Clarke I took the opportunity of repeating Maunder's experiment, using the pupils of a leading girl's college in Trincomalee, the great port on the east coast of Sri Lanka. My little experiment was conducted at short notice, and was not done very scientifically. I drew a circle on a sheet of cardboard and covered it-with a random assortment of blobs and smudges, being careful to avoid any obvious alignments. But, sure enough, some of the girls did produce very convincing canals. Maunder would have been proud of them.

That there was something seriously wrong with Lowell's eyes was demonstrated beyond doubt by his later 'observations' of Mercury and Venus. His drawings of these are almost laughable, especially in view of what we now know about the two planets. The surface of Mercury closely resembles that of the Moon - flat, lava-covered plains and innumerable impact craters. Nevertheless Lowell drew a gridwork of intersecting lines, fuzzier than his gossamer-like Martian canals, but otherwise very similar. The fact that he had produced such drawings as early as 1897 makes it surprising that his later work on Mars was ever taken seriously. His 'chart' of Venus, made about the same time, is equally absurd. It too shows a pattern of linear features, rather like the spokes of a wheel, radiating from a central hub. Though Lowell was convinced that he was recording surface details a series of space missions has now confirmed what was long suspected - that Venus is covered with an atmosphere so thick (one hundred times denser than Earth's) that the surface can never be seen from space. The only genuine features that terrestrial astronomers have ever observed are temporary cloud formations; not until the advent of radar surveys was the truly bizarre surface of Venus - hot as the interior of a furnace - revealed. One day, perhaps, the human race may attempt the taming of what was once hopefully called Earth's sister world, but for the moment Mars is, by comparison, already a Garden of Eden.

Lowell's fantasy dominated - or at least influenced - the public image of Mars for almost half a century, and was the direct inspiration of countless works of fiction. The most famous was H. G. Wells, classic novel The War of the Worlds (1898), which became even more famous on Hallowe'en 1938 when Howard Koch and Orson Welles adapted it for radio. The resulting 'Panic Broadcast' was one of the first demonstrations of the new medium's power, and H. G. Wells was reported to be quite upset by the whole affair. However, all was forgiven by the time of his last visit to the United States, during which he met Welles in a San Antonio radio station on 28 October 1940:

Wells: Well, I've had a series of most delightful experiences since I came to America, but the best thing that has happened so far is meeting my little namesake here, Orson. I find him most delightful - he carries my name with an extra 'e', which I hope he'll drop soon . . . Are you sure there was such a panic in America, or was it your Hallowe'en fun? Welles: I think that's the nicest thing that the man from England could possibly say about the man from Mars.

Despite being inevitably dated, Wells, The War of the Worlds retains much of its power: anyone who doubts that should listen to Richard Burton read its marvellous opening sentences in Jeff Wayne's musical version:

No one would have believed in the last years of the Nineteenth Century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water . . . Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us . . .

I wonder if even Wells could ever have dreamed that, in the last years of the twentieth century, men would be drawing up plans not against Mars, but for it . . .

Perhaps even more widely read than The War of the Worlds were the eleven novels, beginning with A Princess of Mars (1912-17), that Edgar Rice Burroughs set on a planet which clearly owed much to Lowell's speculations. Yet Burroughs added one brilliant touch which, as far as I know, was original: the 'atmosphere machine' which alone made life possible on his exotic but worn-out Barsoom. This was indeed a remarkable anticipation of terraforming.

I cannot leave the imaginary Mars without mentioning three other authors who have set their mark, and in one case his name, upon it. The first was the US writer Stanley G. Weinbaum, who burst upon the science-fiction scene like a nova with 'A Martian Odyssey, (Wonder Stories, 1934); alas, again like a nova, he was short-lived, dying of cancer little over a year after this first appearance. His memorial is an 82km crater in Mars, southern hemisphere.

C. S. Lewis used a somewhat Lowellian Mars as background for his theological speculations in Out of the Silent Planet ( 1938) before moving on to Venus in Perelandra (1943). Both novels are beautifully written, but many would-be astronauts were annoyed when Lewis attacked their visions of - as he called it - 'interplanetary imperialism'.

The last writer of distinction to be identified with an already habitable Mars is of course Ray Bradbury, whose 'Martian Chronicles' started appearing in 1946. Bradbury is, happily, still with us, but one day he will surely be posthumously honoured alongside Wells, Burroughs and Weinbaum with a crater on the planet which inspired their dreams.

The first glimpses of the real Mars began to appear in the 1965-76 period, when the Mariner space-probes flew past and the Vikings went into orbit and dropped landers. As the superbly detailed images flowed bac-k from these probes to Earth, the ghosts of Lowell's canals - and their builders - were finally laid.

Or were they? In 1971 the US astronomer Dr Peter Boyce had a curious experience when observing Mars through one of the world's best telescopes, on a Chilean mountain under the finest conditions he had ever known. As he scanned Syrtis Major-one of the dark triangular markings usually to be seen on the planet's surface - he suddenly saw a classic Lowellian canal stretching from its pointed tip. As he watched in amazement, other markings appeared, including more lines and even 'oases'. He was absolutely certain about what he saw, although at the same time well aware of the Mariner photographs showing the absence of Martian canals. I believe his experience accounts for what happened to many of Lowell's contemporaries; it demonstrates the amazing ability of the eye-brain system to recreate images from memory.

Although I have never seen the canals of Mars, I am sure I could-if I tried hard enough.

The modern era is not, however, without its own popular fallacies concerning life on Mars.

On 25 September 1992 a Titan rocket lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, on the United States, first -mission to Mars in two decades. Mars Observer was the most sophisticated spacecraft ever sent to the planet; it was due to go into a two-hour polar orbit, at a height of 380km, and then begin a survey of the planet lasting for two Earth years (1994-5) - or one complete Martian year of 687 Earth days. Although Mars Observer carried many scientific instruments for remote probing of the planet's atmosphere and mineral composition, most eagerly awaited were the images to be sent back by its onboard camera. Some of these would have had a resolution of only three metres, far surpassing anything sent back by Mariner or Viking. Alas, as the world knows, Mars Observer was lost in space, with devastating results not only to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and JPL ('the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Houston) but to the many scientists who had devoted substantial fractions of their lives to its construction, and who had planned to spend even more years analysing the information it would have sent back to Earth.

To add insult to injury, some crackpot groups have suggested that NASA deliberately sabotaged Mars Observer to prevent it exposing a cover-up of some kind! I do not know the logic, if it can be called that, behind this theory: presumably NASA already knows that there are Martians, but for some strange reason has been concealing the fact. It is hard to think of any hypothesis that could be further from the truth: the slightest hint that there was life on Mars would have solved NASA's budget problems years ago.

Many of us had hoped that Mars Observer would settle once and for all the dispute over the notorious Mars Face. In some ways this affair is reminiscent of the Great Canal Controversy. However, there is one major difference: no one disputes that the Mars Face really exists, for it is present on two Viking images made thirty-five days apart. It is certainly an intriguing - even surprising - object, but can it be anything other than a natural formation, carved over the aeons by the random play of Martian dust-storms?

At least two books have been published suggesting that the Mars Face is not only artificial but is associated with a group of pyramids and other curious shapes to form what, for want of a better word, might be called a city. Unusual Mars Surface Feutures (1988) by V. DiPietro, G. Molenaar and J. Brandenburg contains numerous computer-massaged versions of the Viking images, one of which even appears-to show teeth in the mouth of the slightly simian Face!

Richard C. Hoagland's The Moments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever (1987) is a much more elaborate development of the theme, ranging widely over most of human culture, art and mythology in its speculations about the Face and its associated 'structures'. No brief summary can do it justice, but I cannot resist one quotation: 'And now here I was, gazing down on the ruins of a lost civilization on the Red Planet, thinking: "Of all the people who are not going to believe me, the first is Arthur Clarke.", My slightly-too-imaginative friend Dick Hoaghland(*) is quite right; but I do not completely disbelieve him, either. Had I been in charge of the Mars Observer program, the Cydonia region would have been one of my first priorities for a high-resolution scan. However, my coefficient of scepticism about an artificial origin for the Mars Face and the Martian Pyramids, originally about 99 per cent, has increased to 99.9 per cent as a result of two discoveries.

The first was that there is a 'Face' on Earth,too - and not just any old Face. Some years ago a Canadian air survey photographed a formation which was, quite unmistakably, a profile of George Bernard Shaw - and which was promptly named after him. It has been well asked: 'What strange powers did the Ancients possess, which enabled them to erect this monument to a famous playwright - thousands of years before he was born?'

My curiosity about pyramids on Mars was terminally deflated one evening when I screened the restored version of David Lean's masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Imagine my astonishment when I noticed that Peter O'Toole was racing his camel past an almost perfect yet obviously natural pyramid - and one considerably larger, as far as I could judge, than the manmade imitations at Giza!

So it appears that the combination of wind, sand and the other forces of erosion can produce all sorts of unexpected - indeed, at first sight impossible-results over the course of-time. If this is true on Earth, it will certainly be true on Mars: in fact, when I examined the Viking images of the Cydonia region I kept discovering all sorts of vaguely humanoid faces popping out of the alien landscape. The Lowell Effect was hard at work again: I was finding what I was looking for.

In any event - a human face on Mars! How would that fit into the evolutionary sequence?

Easily, of course. We all know that the Atlanteans had spaceships. Or was it the Lemurians?

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