Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination, and the Birth of a World

Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination, and the Birth of a World

by Oliver Morton

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How can you make sense of a world where no one has ever lived? Acclaimed science writer Oliver Morton tells the story of the heroic landscapes of Mars, now better mapped in some ways than the Earth itself. Mapping Mars introduces the reader to the nineteenth-century visionaries and spy-satellite pioneers, the petroleum geologists and science-fiction writers, the artists and Arctic explorers who have devoted themselves to the discovery of Mars. In doing so they have given a new world to the human imagination, a setting for our next great adventure.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312422615
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 09/01/2003
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.85(d)

About the Author

Oliver Morton is a contributing editor at Wired, as well as a contributor for The New Yorker, Science, and The American Scholar. He lives with his wife in Greenwich, England.

Read an Excerpt

Mapping Mars

Science, Imagination, and The Birth of a World

By Oliver Morton


Copyright © 2002 Oliver Morton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-312-70793-4



And then, as they sat looking at the ships and steamboats making their way to the sea with the tide that was running down, the lovely woman imagined all sorts of voyages for herself and Pa.

—Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

Maps of the Earth begin a short walk from the flat where I live. Go down the High Road, up Royal Hill toward the butcher's, left along Burney Street and then right onto Crooms Hill. At the corner, if you care for such things, you can see a blue plaque of the sort with which London marks houses where people who have made a significant contribution to human happiness once lived. In this case, it was the poet Cecil Day Lewis; as you climb the hill, you'll pass another one marking the home of Benjamin Waugh, founder of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Near the top of the hill sits a grand (but plaqueless) bow-fronted white house, called simply the White House. Walk around the White House's walled garden, down a little alleyway and through a gate in the high brick wall on your right, and you emerge into Greenwich Park. To your right, the beautiful semicircle of the rose garden; to your left a steep path lined by trees. And as you walk out onto the grass, London spread at your feet. As views go, it's not particularly extensive—the horizon is nowhere more than a dozen miles away and in many directions much closer—but it's vast in association. The once imperial cityscape is woven from threads that stretch throughout the world.

Across the river to the east sits the squat black-glass bulk of Reuters, information from around the globe splashing into its rooftop dishes. Upstream and on the near side sit the long, lowworkshops where for more than a century men have made undersea cables to tie the continents together. New skyscrapers devoted to global businesses sit in the redeveloped heart of the docks that used to handle the lion's share of the world's sea trade. Within the park itself there are plants from every continent except Antarctica. At its foot sits the old naval college, where generations of Britannia's officers, my late father included, learned to rule the waves.

Through it all the Thames runs softly, looping around the Isle of Dogs, a local feature leading, as Conrad says in Heart of Darkness, "to the uttermost ends of the Earth." Little sails down this umbilicus of empire now—but above it the new trade routes of the sky are sketched out by aircraft arriving and departing from London's four airports, carving their way through the air we all breathe and the stratosphere we shelter under. To the west the Thames beneath them is still daytime blue; to the east it is already evening dark.

Dawn may feel like an intervention by the sun, rising above a stationary Earth; sunset reveals the truth of the Earth's turning, a slipping away into night. That turning defines two unique, unmoving points on the surface of the Earth: the poles, the extremes of latitude. Add one more point—just one—and you have a coordinate system that can describe the whole world, a basis for all the maps and charts the sailors and pilots need, a way of deciding when days start and end. And that third point is right in front of you, the strongest of all Greenwich's links to the rest of the Earth. In the middle of the park is the old Royal Observatory, a little gathering of domes perched clubbily on a ridge. Within the observatory sits a massive metal construction called a transit circle. The line passing through the poles and through that transit circle is the Earth's prime meridian: 0 degrees, 0 minutes, 0 seconds. All earthly longitudes are measured with respect to that line through Greenwich Park.

The English have taken the Greenwich meridian as the starting point for longitudes since the observatory was founded in the seventeenth century. But it wasn't until the late nineteenth century—at a time when its home in Greenwich was under the stewardship of Sir George Airy, Astronomer Royal, the man who had that great transit circle built—that the Greenwich meridian was formally adopted by the rest of the world. With worldwide navigation a commonplace, and with telecommunications making almost instantaneous contact between continents a possibility, there was a need for a single set of coordinates to define the world's places and time zones. Over the years a variety of possible markers to define this prime meridian were suggested—islands, mountains, artifacts like the Great Pyramid or the Temple in Jerusalem. But a meridian defined by an observatory seemed best. In 1884, at a conference in Washington, D.C., and over spirited French opposition, Greenwich was chosen. Airy's transit circle came to define the world.

Airy was, by all accounts, an uninspiring but meticulous man. He recorded his every thought and expenditure from the day he went up to Cambridge University to more or less the day he died, throwing no note away, delighting in doing his own double-entry book-keeping. He applied a similar thoroughness to his stewardship over the Royal Greenwich Observatory, bringing to its workings little interest in theory or discovery but a profound concern for order, which meant that the production of tables for the Admiralty (the core of the observatory's job) was accomplished with mechanical accuracy. He looked at the heavens and the Earth with precision, not wonder, and though he had his fancies, they were fancies in a similar vein—ecstasies of exactitude such as calculating the date of the Roman invasion of Britain from Caesar's account of the timing of the tides, or meticulously celebrating the geographical accuracy of Sir Walter Scott's poem "The Lady of the Lake." This was a man whose love of a world where everything was in its place would lead him to devote his own time to sticking labels saying "empty" on empty boxes rather than disturb the smooth efficiency of the observatory by taking an underling from his allotted labors to do so for him. After more than forty-five years of such service Airy eventually retired two hundred yards across the park to the White House on Crooms Hill, where he died a decade later.

It's a little sad that the White House doesn't carry a blue circular plaque to commemorate Airy's part in the happiness brought to humanity by a single agreed-upon meridian, but surely there are monuments elsewhere. Maybe Ipswich has an Airy Street; he grew up there and remained fond of the place, arranging for his great transit circle to be made at an Ipswich workshop. There must be abust of him in the Royal Astronomical Society or a portrait in some Cambridge common room. And even if there are none of these things, there is something far grander. Wherever else astronomers go when they die, those who have shown even the faintest interest in the place are welcomed onto the planet Mars, at least in name. By international agreement, craters on Mars are named after people who have studied the planet or evoked it in their creative work—which mostly makes Mars a mausoleum for astronomers, with a few science fiction writers thrown in for spice. In the decades since the craters of Mars were first discovered by space probes, hundreds of astronomers have been thus immortalized. But none of them has a crater more fitting than Airy's.


A Point of Warlike Light

"I've never been to Mars, but I imagine it to be quite lovely."

—Cosmo Kramer in Seinfeld ("The Pilot (I)," written by Larry David)

Mars had an internationally agreed prime meridian before the Earth did. In 1830 the German astronomers Wilhelm Beer and Johann von Mädler, famous now mostly for their maps of the moon, turned their telescope in Berlin's Tiergarten to Mars. The planet had been observed before. Its polar caps were known, and so was its changeability; the face of Mars varies from minute to minute, due to the Earth's distorting atmosphere, and from season to season, due to quite different atmospheric effects on Mars itself. There are, though, some features that can be counted on to stick around from minute to minute and season to season, the most notable being the dark region now called Syrtis Major, then known as the Hourglass Sea. To calculate the length of the Martian day, Mädler (Beer owned the telescope—Mädler did most of the work) chose another, smaller dark region, precisely timing its reappearance night after night. He got a figure of 24 hours 37 minutes and 9.9 seconds, 12.76 seconds less than the currently accepted figure. That this length of time is so similar to the length of an earthly day is complete coincidence, one of three coincidental similarities between the Earth and Mars. The second coincidence is that the obliquity of Mars—the angle that its axis of rotation makes with a notional line perpendicular to the plane of its orbit—is, at 25.2°, very similar to the obliquity of the Earth. The third is that though Mars is considerably smaller than the Earth—a little more than half its radius, a little more than a tenth its mass—its surface area, at roughly a third of the Earth's, is quite similar to that of the Earth's continents.

When Mädler came to compile his observations into a chart in 1840, mathematically transforming his sketches of the disc of Mars into a rectangular Mercator projection, he declined to name the features he recorded, but did single out the small dark region he had used to time the Martian day as the site of his prime meridian, centering his map on it. Future astronomers followed him in the matter of the meridian while eagerly making good his oversight in the matter of names. Father Angelo Secchi, a Jesuit at the Vatican observatory, turned the light and dark patches into continents and seas, respectively, as astronomers had done for the moon, and gave the resulting geographic features the names of famous explorers—save for the Hourglass Sea, which he renamed the "Atlantic Canale," seeing it as a division between Mars's old world and its new. In 1867 Richard Proctor, an Englishman who wrote popular astronomy books, produced a nomenclature based on astronomers, rather than explorers, and gave astronomers associated with Mars pride of place. His map has a Mädler Land and a Beer Sea, along with a Secchi Continent. Observations made by the Astronomer Royal in the 1840s—he was interested in making more precise measurements of the planet's diameter—were commemorated by the Airy Sea. Pride of place went to the Rev. William Rutter Dawes, a Mars observer of ferociously keen eyesight, perceiving, for example, that the dark patch Mädler had used to mark the prime meridian had two prongs. (Dawes's far-field acuity was allegedly compensated by a visual deficit closer to home; it is said he could pass his wife in the street without recognizing her.) So great was Dawes's influence on Proctor—or so small was the number of astronomers associated with Mars—that his name was given not just to the biggest ocean but also to a Continent, a Sea, a Strait, an Isle and, marking the meridian, his very own Forked Bay.

Proctor's names had two drawbacks, one immediately obvious, one revealed a decade later. The obvious drawback was that an unhealthy number of the people commemorated on Mars were now British. When the French astronomer Camille Flammarion revised Proctor's nomenclature for his own map of 1876, various continentals—Kepler, Tycho, Galileo—were given grander markings. One continental on whom Proctor had looked with favor, though, was thrown off: Perhaps influenced by the Franco-Prussian war, Flammarion resisted having the most prominent dark patch on the planet called the Kaiser Sea, even if Proctor had named it such in honor of Frederik Kaiser of the Leiden Observatory. The Hourglass Sea became an hourglass again, though this time in French: Mer du Sablier.

Proctor's other problem was more fundamental. The features he had marked on his map, whatever their names, did not match what other people saw through their telescopes. In 1877, Mars was in the best possible position for observation; it was at its nearest to the sun (a situation called perihelion) and at its nearest to the Earth (a situation called opposition), just thirty-five million miles away. Impressive new telescopes all over the world were turned to Mars and revealed its features in more detail than ever before. The maps based on observations made that year were almost all better than Proctor's; and the map made by Giovanni Schiaparelli, a Milanese astronomer, on the basis of these observations, provided a new nomenclature that overturned all others.

Schiaparelli was not interested in celebrating his peers and forebears; he wanted to give Mars the high cultural tone of the classics. In the words of Percival Lowell, an American astronomer who was to make Mars his life work, it was an "at once appropriate and beautiful scheme, in which Clio [muse of poetry and history] does ancillary duty to Urania [muse of astronomy]." To the west were the lands beyond the pillars of Hercules, such as Tharsis, an Iberian source of silver mentioned by Herodotus, and Elysium, the home of the blessed at the far end of the Earth. Beneath them, part of the complex dark girdle strung around Mars below its equator, were the sea of sirens, Mare Sirenum, and Mare Cimmerium, the sea that Homer put next to Hades, "wrapped in mist and cloud." Then we come to the Mediterranean regions: the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Gulf of Sidra (Syrtis Major, the long-observed hourglass) dividing bright Hellas and Arabia. Along the far side of Arabia sits the Sinus Sabeus, a gulf on the fragrant coast of Araby, home to the Queen of Sheba. Beyond Arabia begins the Orient, with Margaritifer Sinus, the bay of pearls on the southern coast of India, and the striking bright lands of Argyre (Burma) and Chryse (Thailand). Finally, in the dark region others had called the eye of Mars, Schiaparelli placed Solis Lacus, the lake of the sun, from which all dawns begin.

Do not think for a moment that this means a good classical education will help you find your way around Mars. For a start, due to the way telescopes invert images, everything is flipped around: Greece is south of Libya, Burma west of Arabia. What's more, Schiaparelli's geography was often more allusive than topographical. His planet is 360° of free association. Thus Solis Lacus is surrounded by areas named for others associated with the sun: Phoenix, Daedalus, and Icarus. The sea of the sirens borders on the sea of the muses, presumably because Schiaparelli wanted to provide opportunity for their earthly feud to continue. Elysium leads to Utopia.

For the most part he did not explain his nominal reasoning very exactly, but there are exceptions, most notably right in the middle of the map, at the point where dark Sinus Sabeus gives way to Sinus Margaritifer, somewhere between Arabia and the Indies, a place he called Fastigium Aryn. "As Mädler," Schiaparelli wrote, "I have taken the zeropoint of the areographic longitudes there, and following this idea I have given it the name of Arynpeak or Aryndome, an imaginary point in the Arabian sea—which was long assumed by the Arabic geographers and astronomers as the origin of the terrestrian longitudes."

By the time he was through with Mars, Schiaparelli had given 304 names to features on its surface and though there was a Proctorite resistance—" 'Dawes' Forked Bay it will ever be to me, and I trust to all who respect his memory," wrote Nathaniel Green, who painted a lovely map of Mars after observing the planet from Madeira during the opposition of 1877—it foundered. Schiaparelli's proper names were triumphant and have in large part lasted until today. It was his common nouns that caused the problems. Schiaparelli saw a large number of linear features on the face of the planet and called them "canali"—channels. Schiaparelli claimed to be agnostic as to the nature of these channels—they might have been natural, or they might have been artificial. Percival Lowell, his most famous disciple, plumped firmly for the artificial interpretation.

Lowell's reasoning went like this. Mars is habitable, but its aridity makes the habitability marginal; if there were intelligences on Mars, they would do something about this; the obvious thing to do would be to build a network of long, straight canals. And since this is what we see when we look at Mars, this is what must have happened.


Excerpted from Mapping Mars by Oliver Morton. Copyright © 2002 Oliver Morton. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Part 2: Histories,
Part 3: Water,
Part 4: Places,
Part 5: Change,
Reference, Notes, and Further Reading,

What People are Saying About This

Douglas Preston

I couldn't stop reading this book! Fascinating, truly fascinating. (Douglas Preston, author of Dinosaur In The Attic and The Cabinet Of Curiosities)

Jim Lovelock

...wonderfully readable and authoritative...This book is a landmark in the history of space exploration. (Jim Lovelock, author of GAIA: A New Look at Life on Earth)

Kim Stanley Robinson

Mapping Mars is a wonderful work of intellectual history and a permanent addition to the Mars bookshelf. (Kim Stanley Robinson, author of The Mars Series and The Years Of Rice And Salt)

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Mapping Mars: Science, Imagination, and the Birth of a World 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
name99 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Dad recommended this to me and, while interesting, and while I can see why he enjoyed it, I can't say I was wild about it. The descriptions of Mars geology and the history of (and ongoing debate over) how Mars has evolved were well-written and interesting, but I can't say I cared much about the history of Mars in science fiction. I can't put on finger on just why the whole seemed underwhelming, given that sections were so interesting; maybe it just felt padded, that if 30% had been tossed, the slimmer result would have been that much better a book.
anthonares on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I picked up this book expecting it to be sort of a comprehensive travelers guide to Mars (despite the book with that same name). Instead of giving me a blow-by-blow account of the wonders of individual named features, Oliver Morton provided a seemingly complete review of the geography and geology of Mars. He discusses the creation of Martian maps by Schappiarelli, Lowell and modern geologists. He talks about the spacecraft that have informed us about Mars. He then introduces us to the major people behind Martian science. His book attempts to make Mars something concrete and sensible and to give dimension to flatness of the images through which we perceive it. Almost immediately upon picking up the book, I found that childlike glee about Mars again. Ive felt it a couple of other times, when I read KSRs Mars series, and also after reading Zubrins Case for Mars. In fact, those three books (along with my fervent belief in the power of science obtained from Sagan) nicely encapsulate when I want to devote my life to helping humans get to Mars. To sum up Mapping Marss contribution to my current high enthusiasm, I would have to say that its completely responsible. I am excited about my career again, and Im refocused. I have a great review of the current state of Martian science under my belt. Enough so that I am going to write a fairly long paper here pretty soon that will sort of formalize everything for me. Im energized, enthused, and excited.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading ¿Mapping Mars¿ I felt that I had actually been on Mars to experience what the planet has to offer. Mr. Morton¿s writing style is very conversational, it's as if you and he are talking over a cup of coffee. He doesn¿t mind getting a little off track from time to time to talk about something interesting to him, such as science fiction works he likes, and other digression¿s. But they are very interesting and eventually weave nicely back to Mars. His knowledge of Mars, Mars science and the people involved in its exploration is exceptional. But most importantly, he makes the story of mapping Mars understandable without reducing it to simple terms and keeps it interesting and exciting. This is a rare combination in any science writing.