Monday, August 6, 2007

Oliver Morton on Giovanni Schiaparelli

Giovanni Schiaparelli's Map of Mars (1877)
Schiaparelli was not interested in celebrating his peers and forebears; he wanted to give Mars the high cultural tone of the classics. ... 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 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.


By the time he was through with Mars, Schiaparelli had given 304 names to features on its surface... 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 claimedto 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.
-- Oliver Morton, Mapping Mars, pp. 15-6

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