Imaginative geographies of Mars: the science and significance of the red planet, 1877-1910

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Lane, Kristina Maria Doyle

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Over several decades spanning the turn of the twentieth century, Western astronomers’ claims about the landscape and climate of Mars spurred widespread scientific and popular interest in the possibility that the red planet might be inhabited by intelligent beings far more advanced than humans. This dissertation challenges traditional interpretations of this episode – as an amusing example of science gone awry – with a critical re-investigation of the production of geographical knowledge about Mars in historical context. Based on extensive archival and documentary research, I offer a new explanation for the power with which the notion of an inhabited Mars gripped scholars and citizens alike, showing that turn-of the century scientific narratives about Mars derived much of their power and popularity from ties with the newly established discipline of geography. At the same time, the dissertation reveals the Mars mania to be integrally connected with the history of geography, suggesting that scientific and popular representations of Martian geography also helped circulate knowledge claims regarding the geography of Earth. Specifically, the dissertation examines astronomers’ use of geographical rhetoric, imagery, method, and themes, analyzing the extent to which these elements contributed to their scientific credibility and popular reputations. I first focus on the development of Mars knowledge through cartography, examining the evolution of cartographic conventions and styles used to portray Mars and revealing how an early geometric map established the authority to influence the cartography of Mars over the next several decades. I show, furthermore, that much of the power and longevity of the inhabited-Mars hypothesis derived from this map’s visual authority as a geographical representation, thus explaining why Mars maps were ubiquitous during the canal craze, with astronomers seemingly competing with one another to add cartographic detail. In addition to their deft manipulation of cartographic conventions, astronomers also often employed representational techniques from the popular travel narratives, explorer accounts, and geographical expeditions of the day to imagine a landscape they could never visit. Aligning themselves with the emerging observational geosciences, astronomers prioritized direct observation and rhetorically invoked a geographical gaze to establish legitimacy for their work, producing in the process a familiar, Earthlike picture of Martian geography that contributed to widespread interest in the planet’s possible habitability. These strong links between Mars astronomy and geographical science suggest that scientific claims about the red planet should be re-examined and re-contextualized in relation to terrestrial geographical knowledge production. Illustrating the value of this approach, the dissertation compares several Mars-related tropes with contemporaneous geographical descriptions of terrestrial landscapes and cultures. This analysis shows that Mars was constructed as an arid, irrigated, dying planet in many of the same ways that Earth’s own desert regions were portrayed in imperial narratives. As astronomers and science writers drew on various audiences’ understandings of arid landscapes, they also used Mars as a site of projection for geographical concerns regarding climate and landscape change. Similarly, dominant representations of Martian culture were influenced by Social Darwinist philosophy and the environmentally deterministic traditions of geographical writing about the non-Western Other. At the same time, however, the construction of a superior Martian in both scientific and popular texts and images indicates that the narratives surrounding Mars departed in significant ways from typical writing about the terrestrial world. The production of geographical knowledge regarding Mars is thus shown as a potential site for re-producing terrestrial geographies during a formative phase in geography’s disciplinary history.