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Unthinkable Mars

Clear your mind the next time you look at the Red Planet.
OMearaStephen
This month I’d like you to do the unthinkable. Now that Mars is starting to shrink in apparent size as it recedes from Earth, try losing your mind before you look at the planet through your telescope. Let me explain.

Meet the “monkey mind”

During the pre-spacecraft era, many observers saw (and drew) canals on Mars. In the post-spacecraft era, it’s hard to find anyone who does. I find that fascinating. Even though we know that the canals are illusory, why have observers suddenly failed to record the illusion? That could be a thought-provoking study in itself. But you could argue that, in general, both periods are separate phenomena linked to the same psychological and physiological factors that can override what is seen, and replace it with what is expected to be seen.

ASYOM0918_01

By November 1988, Valhalla had become quite diffuse and continued to fade over the years. Its remains can be seen in this Rosetta spacecraft image of Mars taken during its February 2007 flyby.

ESA/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
That’s why I’m asking you to meditate — clear your mind — before you put your eye to the eyepiece. As the late Sōtō Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki alluded, it is our buzzing and thinking mind that deludes the natural mind, which is free from thought. Buddhists call this condition “monkey mind,” and I wonder how much control it has over visual Mars observers today who know how the planet should appear.

Monkey see, monkey do?

Around the turn of the 20th century, it was probably more like monkey see, monkey do with Mars. For instance, after Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli introduced his canali to the world in 1877, Boston businessman Percival Lowell picked up the torch and carried it well into the 20th century, outperforming his predecessor by introducing hundreds of canals.

Later observers upped the ante to more than 500. Astronomers even photographed some of the canals, back in the days of grainy black-and-white emulsions. This lent a bit of credence to the visual phenomenon, breathing new life into a dying belief.

ASYOM0918_02
The author created this sketch of Mars on September 14, 1988, at the eyepiece of the 9-inch Alvan Clark refractor at Harvard College Observatory. Note the canal-like wisps extending from Sinus Meridiani, and other festoonlike features.
Stephen James O’Meara
The viability of this phenomenon was even addressed by Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, in a 1950 issue of The Astronomical Journal: “The canals cannot be entirely relegated to the realm of illusions. … The radial pattern of the canals with respect to the oases is attributed to fracturing of a thick crust under strain by the impact of asteroids which created the oases.”

What I find fascinating is that Tombaugh’s theory came almost five decades after Andrew Ellicott Douglass — Lowell’s first assistant, who initially helped Lowell to fan the fire of the canal fervor of that period — wrote a paper in a 1907 issue of The Popular Science Monthly, titled “Illusions of Vision and the Canals of Mars.” In it, he says, “The ray illusion [of the eye] is to me a very satisfactory explanation of many faint canals radiating from those small spots on Mars, called ‘lakes’ or ‘oases.’ ” He also suggested that an astigmatic eye may see two parallel rays as double. He went on to say, “We have here the medicine to prevent this disease in the future.”

ASYOM0918_03
In August 1988, the author observed Mars with a clear mind through the 60-inch reflector at Mount Wilson Observatory. He attempted to use the eyes of a 19th-century observer to record what he saw without preconceived notions. Among the many features he drew in this regional sketch of the Mare Sirenum/Mare Cimmerium area was a striking diffuse linear streak running parallel to both maria. The author informally dubbed this feature “Valhalla.” Many amateur astronomers using CCDs later recorded the long canal-like marking. 
Stephen James O’Meara
Do you dare?

Actually, the “disease” of the martian canals is not about how the eye-brain system transforms the border between two high-contrast areas of differing brightness into a linear demarcation (a canal). Rather, it’s about how the mind interprets what it sees, in this case waterways built by an intelligent civilization.

So I’m curious. Try to forget everything you know about the planet Mars, and observe it with the eyes of an early explorer. What wonders do you see? Don’t try to fathom them, just accept them as they appear to you at the moment. See a canal? Excellent, go ahead and draw it. Yes, it may be illusory, but our visual world is filled with illusions, and they are wonders unto themselves.

Observing Mars without any preconceived notions cleanses the mind and helps you to enjoy the beauty of observing your Mars — no one else’s. You can even keep it as your own personal secret. But if you wish to share it with me at sjomeara31@gmail.com, I promise not to tell.

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