Promises, promises

Figure 1 – Percival Lowell in 1914, observing Venus in the daytime with the 24-inch (61 cm) Alvan Clark & Sons refracting telescope at Flagstaff, Arizona. From the wikipedia and in the public domain in the United States because of its age.

Young David was promised air-cars and men on Mars. Don’t think I’m complaining; I am. Well finally, we are talking again about reaching out into the solar system and finally going to Mars. To us Star Trek fans, it’s a matter of destiny.

But just as I am starting to feel good again, Stephen Hawkins weighs in with the dire prediction that we must leave Earth within 600 years. Bottom line we are using up and spoiling the planet, and in general making a dogs breakfast of it. It is, of course, totally depressing. Who’s going to leave the Earth? I am pretty sure not so many of us, or more correctly the them which is future us – very confusing I know. The rest of us/them is going to need to stay behind to choke on our own effluence, and judging from current events, I am pretty sure that a government that is prepared and heartless enough to take healthcare away from twenty-one million people cannot be counted upon to choose the survivors equitably. I remind you of the scene from the movie “Dr. Strangelove.

“Muffley: Well, I, I would hate to have to decide…who stays up and…who goes down.

Dr. Strangelove: Well, that would not be necessary, Mr. President. It could easily be accomplished with a computer. And a computer could be set and programmed to accept factors from youth, health, sexual fertility, intelligence, and a cross-section of necessary skills. Of course, it would be absolutely vital that our top government and military men be included to foster and impart the required principles of leadership and tradition. Naturally, they would breed prodigiously, eh? There would be much time, and little to do. Ha, ha. But ah, with the proper breeding techniques and a ratio of say, ten females to each male, I would guess that they could then work their way back to the present Gross National Product within say, twenty years.”

OY, this could be a problem!

Despite this sticky issue, it now appears that we are moving forward towards our rendezvous  with the Red Planet. Lots of folks are ready to make the sacrifice even those associated with a one-way ticket: a multiyear journey, exposure to deadly radiation levels, living the rest of their lives in cramped corners with the same people. And then there is the most hideous fact of all – no online shopping, no more, no how, never again! Frightening! Still Mars is out there, as elusive as it is tangible.

And Mars has long fired the human imagination. Saturday marked the one hundred and first anniversary of the death of Percival Lawrence Lowell (1855–1916), who led the movement in favor of canals on Mars – alien life – an other that challenged human hegemony over the universe. Lowell is shown in Figure 1 in 1914 his eye set, in this case, not on Mars, but rather on whether the 24-inch Alvan Clark & Sons refracting telescope at Flagstaff, Arizona could pick up Venus in the daylight. It could, and this is a wonderful photograph with a coffee sepia tone that adds a sense of age. The subject matter portrays the intricate scientific instrument. Lowell is the master of the technology, like the professor behind the curtain – the universe revealing its secrets to modern science. Or in this case fooling the old professor. There are no sentient being-made waterways on Mars – or at least not that we know of. Our robots have been there,  guided by our hands. Lowell’s canals are not real. But the belief in alien life – in an otherness that intrigues us and challenges our belief structure remains. In Lowell’s own words:

“If astronomy teaches anything, it teaches that man is but a detail in the evolution of the universe, and the resemblant though diverse details are inevitably to be expected in the hosts 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.”

This entry was posted in History of Photography.

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