Mars Globes

One of the places my family and I visited during our July travels was Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona. This was where Percival Lowell, a former US ambassador to Korea, set up shop in the late nineteenth century to observe the planet Mars and search for the elusive Planet X. One thing that captivated Lowell about Mars were the linear features crisscrossing the planet. The more he observed them, the more he became convinced they were canals built by intelligent beings. Over the years, Lowell would make many maps of Mars and publish essays detailing how the red planet must be an abode of life. Lowell also made globes.

Martian globe on display at Lowell Observatory

As it turns out, Lowell’s canals do not exist. They seem to be the result of some optical phenomena going on within the telescope itself enhanced by wishful thinking. It’s easy to imagine Lowell gazing up at Mars from his chair in Flagstaff, imagining a dying desert world with intelligent Martians hanging on through their ingenuity, digging canals to bring water from the polar caps to arable farm land in the equatorial regions. These ideas would go on to inspire writers like H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Ray Bradbury. Even if Lowell’s observations did not prove correct, he succeeded in making Mars a place in people’s imagination that we could visit.

As a young reader, I fell in love with the canal-lined Mars of Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. When visiting Lowell Observatory, I always thought a Martian canal globe would be a cool souvenir. Unfortunately, they don’t sell them in the gift shop. What’s more, they don’t sell them much of anywhere. Most Mars globes available today show the Mars we’ve mapped via orbiting probes. These are great globes and I’d love one of those, too, but they don’t capture the imagination that stirred me in my earliest days of reading science fiction. I did see that a master globe maker recreated a canal globe a while back and made them available for sale, but I also saw that he charged far more than I could afford. What’s more, when I looked again after visiting Lowell, I couldn’t find them anymore.

Of course, I’m not only a science fiction fan and a professional scientist, I’m a steampunk. If there’s one thing a steampunk knows it’s that when something isn’t available, you just have to go out and make it. My wife and I discussed approaches and I did some searching on the web. I already knew that several images of Lowell’s maps were available online. I found software that would convert rectangular maps to “map gores,” the strips used to make globes. With the power of Adobe Photoshop, I could resize those gores to any ball I wanted. So, I set out to make my own globe. Since this was the first time I’d ever tried something like this, I decided to make a prototype before making a nice one.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

The prototype wasn’t perfect. Despite measuring the ball I used for a form, I sized the gores just a little too small. This could have been a little bit of rounding error from several sources. Also, it took some tries to figure out how to get the gores on smoothly. I mostly figured it out, and I think some better tools would help. Despite that, I think the prototype globe turned out much better than I had any right to expect. In fact, the flaws actually add to the antique look of the globe.

At this point, I’m working on acquiring some better tools and a nice stand for the final globe. Who knows exactly what I’ll do with my new globe-making skills. If a steampunk event shows interest, I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned. Given that the globes aren’t generally available, I might consider making a few for sale, as long as I confirm that I’m not violating any rights by using the old maps and I feel my skills are up to the task.

What I do know is that the globes I make for myself will serve as an inspiration. I look at the globe and dream of Mars as it could have been. When astronauts visit Mars in my novel The Solar Sea, they wax poetic about the old visions of Mars even as they see its real wonders. Of course, Lowell’s crypt next to the dome where he observed Mars was an inspiration for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. A part of me would like to think of Lowell’s spirit walking a canal-laced Mars, much as scientists who died did in Camille Flammarion’s novel Urania. As I look around the globe, I see that Lowell named one of the canals, Draco, a name shared with the leader of my Scarlet Order vampires. Maybe there’s a story out there about the Scarlet Order paying a visit to Mars.

Mars, Up Close and Personal

On May 30, 2016, the planet Mars reached the point in its orbit where it’s closest to Earth. The two planets were 46.8 million miles apart. In about a week, Mars will grow noticeably fainter as the planets move away from each other. Earlier this week, on the night of June 6, I took advantage of the close approach to get a nice image of the red planet.

Mars - June 6, 2016

Between work, travel, and weather, this was my first opportunity to take advantage of the close approach with my 8-inch Celestron Telescope. The new image is noticeably improved over my February 11 photo taken with the same telescope and camera and displayed at the same scale:

Mars-160211-Color

This really illustrates why close approaches have been so important to understanding Mars. The improved resolution is breathtaking. During the close approach of Mars in the fall of 1877, Asaph Hall at the U.S. Naval Observatory discovered the red planet’s two small moons, Phobos and Deimos. That same close approach unfortunately led Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli to declare the existence of channels or even canals on Mars. American scholar Percival Lowell took the idea and ran with it, making a career of publishing studies of Martian canals and using them as proof of Martian life.

Lowell’s enthusiasm prompted biologist Alfred Russel Wallace to seriously consider the conditions necessary for extraterrestrial life. In the process, he made some of the first calculations about the temperature on Mars based on its distance from the sun. He also calculated how big the canals would have to be so they could be seen from Earth. The canals would literally have to be miles wide, delivering water from tiny polar caps. As Wallace said, “Any attempt to make that scanty surplus, by means of overflowing canals, travel across the equator in to the opposite hemisphere, through such a terrible desert region and exposed to such a cloudless sky as Mr. Lowell describes, would be the work of a body of madmen rather than intelligent beings.”

What I like about this story is that although Lowell misinterpreted what he saw, his observations prompted critical thinking and led to a whole body of research. The modern Search for Extra-Terrestrial Inteligence, most certainly owes its existence to Alfred Russel Wallace pondering whether or not Martians really could build canals as Lowell claimed.

Whether there are people on Mars or not, the planet captivates me and many other people. I’m not sure whether it’s the desert vistas, the prospect of a canyon that dwarfs the Grand Canyon, or a mountain that dwarfs Everest. Perhaps its as simple as knowing that when Mars is at closest approach, it comes tantalizingly close to revealing its secrets even in an 8-inch telescope as in the photo above.

The Solar Sea

I’ve been compelled to write about Mars on several occasions. The planet plays a prominent role in my novel The Solar Sea which you can read about at TheSolarSea.com. While there, you can check out some cool illustrations by Laura Givens and download a free reading guide. Also, my story “Arachne’s Stepchildren” appears in The Martian Anthology edited by David B. Riley. You can check it out at Amazon.com.

Although Percival Lowell was wrong about Martian canals, his publications on the subject and the discussions that ensued helped to assure that Mars would be a real place in people’s imaginations in the years that followed. In much the same way, Kepler Project Scientist Steve Howell and I want to start viewing the planets discovered by the Kepler Space Probe with a similar sense of place. Because of that, we’ll start reading for the anthology Kepler’s Cowboys on Wednesday, June 15. Interested writers should click here for the guidelines.

If you missed Mars’s close approach this time around, despair not! Mars will make an even closer approach around the end of July 2018. At that point it will only be 35.8 million miles from Earth and appear about a 30% larger than it did this year. I hope to be out with my telescope and camera to try to get another image of our fascinating planetary neighbor.

Elusive Mars and Majestic Jupiter

The weather in the Southwest has dried out and warmed up, which inspired another session in the back yard with my Celestron 8-inch telescope and Orion StarShoot USB Camera. My primary hope was to capture Mars. Now Mars is a notoriously difficult target for a small telescope. It’s an orb in slightly varying shades of red. To see any detail at all is a challenge. In the book Cosmos, Carl Sagan described Percival Lowell’s challenges observing Mars:

    Observations of this sort are not easy. You put in long hours at the telescope in the chill of the early morning. Often the seeing is poor and the image of Mars blurs and distorts. Then you must ignore what you have seen. Occasionally the image steadies and the features of the planet flash out momentarily, marvelously.

I couldn’t say it better myself. I watched the planet for several minutes. Every now and then I’d see the polar cap appear and occasionally a dark feature would join it. I put in my video camera and most frames came out as red blurs, though a few showed a hint of structure. I used the RegiStax 6 package to combine the images and work to bring out the structures and was able to get this image.

Mars-160211-Color

When I first saw the images, I thought the telescope was slightly out of focus because Mars was slightly oblong. However, checking Sky and Telescope magazine, it turns out that the relative positions the planets mean Mars is in a slightly gibbous phase right now. We actually can see the terminator from Martian day to night. Perhaps it’s because this little desert world is at once similar to ours but challenging to really resolve well that we find it so fascinating.

Looking at it through the telescope and even on the video screen, I thought I could convince myself that I saw linear structures like canals. Even without canals, a visit would be fascinating and I’ve imagined going there in my fiction. In my story “Arachne’s Stepchildren” which appears in The Martian Anthology, I imagine miners on Mars actually finding life deep underground. In my novel The Solar Sea, the solar sail Aristarchus stops by the planet and a landing party visits the summit of Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system. In the novel, the astronauts continue on to Jupiter and so did I. Here are images of Jupiter without a filter and through a blue filter.

Jupiter-160211-Comparison

The exciting part of this image is that you can see the Great Red Spot, the solar system’s longest lasting storm, in the upper brown belt near the planet’s center. It’s a bit faint, elusive like Mars, but it’s a little more apparent in the blue filter.

Even without a telescope, it’s worth stepping out the door if you happen to be up a little before sunrise. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are all visible without a telescope. In fact, with a sufficiently large telescope, you would find Pluto not far from Mercury and Venus right now. I enjoy going out and looking even though my “day” job involves long hours with the telescope. It helps to make a personal connection to those objects in the sky which inspire us and it gives me the opportunity to share those wonders with my family.

Scientists of the Wild West

I’m a proud graduate of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology located in Socorro, New Mexico. The school was opened in 1893 as the New Mexico School of Mines. The first president was a chemist, Dr. Floyd Davis. Of course, in 1893, Socorro was still very much part of the wild west. For that matter, New Mexico and Arizona wouldn’t achieve statehood for nearly two decades. Now, I’ll hazard a guess that when you picture the wild west, your first image isn’t of scientists. Nevertheless, there were many scientists who found the west an attractive place to work. Among them was Mr. Steampunk himself, Nikola Tesla.

Tesla in Colorado

Tesla opened a laboratory in Colorado Springs in 1899 so he would have room to conduct his electrical experiments. He conducted experiments in wire telegraphy and electrical generation. At one point, he is said to have generated an artificial lightning arc over 135 feet long that created a thunder boom which could be heard over 15 miles away.

At one point, Tesla aimed his wireless receiver at the night sky and was surprised to hear faint beepings. Tesla believed he was picking up evidence of extraterrestrial communication and the press reported it as evidence of life on Mars. The truth might be far more interesting. It turns out that modern scientists who have experimented with Tesla’s designs have discovered that Tesla’s receiver was outstanding at detecting any kind of electrical discharge. People have used Tesla receivers to detect lightning on Jupiter, for instance. Such lightning is hard to distinguish from a telegraph signal, so it’s possible that Tesla actually made the first detections of extraterrestrial lightning.

Percival Lowell

Another scientist who was very interested in the possibility of Martian life was Percival Lowell. A former foreign secretary to Korea and scion to a wealthy Eastern family, Lowell could build an observatory wherever he wanted. Traditionally observatories had been built near the universities that housed astronomers such as Harvard, Yale, or Cambridge. Lowell decided to conduct one of the first surveys to determine the place where he could obtain the most clear nights on sky with a telescope. In 1894, Lowell decided to build his observatory near Flagstaff, Arizona. Lowell observed Mars extensively from the site. Years later a young astronomer named Clyde Tombaugh would discover Pluto while working at Lowell Observatory.

The wide open spaces and clear skies of the west clearly appealed to certain scientists in the late nineteenth century. In fact, Dr. Floyd Davis’s closing remarks from his inaugural address as president of the New Mexico School of Mines could, with only minor adaptation, apply to many homesteaders and ranchers of the period. “Education for such professional service is a knowledge of how to use the whole of one’s self, to apply the faculties with which one is endowed to all practical purposes. A liberal technical education broadens our views, removes prejudice, and causes us to welcome the views of others, and we no longer consider our methods the only ones worthy of adoption. It keeps us out of ruts and makes us desirous of being benefited by the experiences and teachings of others. SummersLightningWolves It stimulates great mental activity, and thus leads to skill, investigation, discovery and improvement.”

If you’d care to read about my fictional wild west scientists, check out Owl Dance and its sequel Lightning Wolves. The novels are available both in paperback and as ebooks.

Science, Magic, and Music in the Old West

Earlier this month, I was honored to be one of the author guests at the Wild Wild West Steampunk Convention held at Old Tucson Studios. Many classic western films were shot at Old Tucson, so it’s a great place to immerse oneself in the whole steampunk experience. The weather was beautiful for the event and, for the most part, my panels and events were standing room only.

Wild Wild West Con 3

On Friday of the convention, I spoke about how Mars became a place in people’s imaginations during the Victorian age. Of course, there is a strong wild west side to this story. Percival Lowell looked for clear, high dry skies to observe Mars and he established an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. He then went on to document the planet’s non-existent canals. Nicola Tesla came out west to Colorado to establish a laboratory and thought he detected radio signals from the red planet. All of it helped people see Mars as a place, even if those scientists didn’t interpret their observations correctly.

Martian Presentation

Friday night, I attended a wonderful show featuring the bellydance performance troupe Osiris, the magician Dyno Staats, and the Nathaniel Johnstone Band. The bellydancers captivated my daughter and Dyno’s magic was fun. Although Dyno and I know each other, his assistant hadn’t met me and I was pulled up for one of the tricks, which was a delight. Several of the Nathaniel Johnstone Band’s songs were inspired by folktales and mythology, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Nathaniel Johnstone Band

On Saturday, I participated in two different writer’s panels. The first was Drake and McTrowell’s Hot Potato School of Writing, in which two writers and two audience members created stories on the fly from prompts provided by writers Erasmus Drake and Sparky McTrowell. Later that day, I was on a writing panel with Dashing David Grasse, and Muffy Morrigan. While all of this was going on, my daughter in a fit of mad genius constructed her very own automaton.

Verity and Friend

On Sunday, I wrapped things up with Dyno Staats on the Victorian Magic and Science panel, where we discussed how science and magic influenced and changed each other through the nineteenth century. We’ve given this presentation at a few different conventions now and I always learn new things.

David and Dyno

In addition to the panels I participated in, there were plenty of other events. David Grasse taught participants how to play faro. There was lots of tea dueling. There were many workshops where people made items to take with them. There were lots of vendors selling everything from steampunk crafts, to clothes, to books. All in all, there was a little something for everyone who either was already a fan of steampunk or was looking to learn more about it.

Revolution of Air and Rust

As it turns out, I sold out of the first edition of my novel Owl Dance at Wild Wild West Con, but the new edition is on its way. I’ll be sure to post details when I have them. In the meantime, be sure to check out my steampunk novella Revolution of Air and Rust in which Pancho Villa falls into a parallel universe while fighting against forces from the United States and finds a new weapon. The novella is available at Amazon and Smashwords.