Originally created 07/06/97

Mars still sparks imagination without little green men



PASADENA, Calif. - No little green men were staring back when Mars Pathfinder opened its eyes. There was no sign among the photos of red rocks and dust of any weird creatures building canals or plotting to attack Earth.

The most fertile ground on Mars probably is just in the minds of earthlings.

The red planet has over the years invaded literature, movies and television, inspiring visionaries like H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Orson Welles to dream of exploration and alien civilizations.

Some people credit the fiction with inspiring the science that led to Pathfinder. And advances in science and technology have made the planet less a thing to fear and more a place to consider visiting.

"I think a lot of people have projected a lot of their hopes and fears onto Mars over the decades," said William Goodwin, who attended Planetfest '97, a conference that coincided with Pathfinder's landing on Mars.

"There's more hope than fears at the present," he said. "Mars might be the New World for the next two centuries - kind of what America was for the 17th century."

Fear of Earth's neighbor began in ancient time, when sky watchers noted the bright red dot in the sky and believed it carried war, pestilence and the need for human sacrifice. The Romans named it Mars for their god of war.

In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli saw what he thought were lines, which he called "channels," on the planet's surface. His description was translated in English as "canals."

American astronomer Percival Lowell championed the theory that intelligent life created the canals to channel water to cities. The founder of the Lowell observatory spent 15 years studying the planet.

Such speculation inspired science fiction, including H.G. Wells' 1895 book "War of the Worlds," in which Martians attack Earth. In 1938, Orson Welles turned the book into a radio play that scared the pants off listeners.

Countless movies fed on the idea, including Tim Burton's 1996 comedy "Mars Attacks!" in which green Martians with bulging heads try to take over the Earth.

Astronomer Carl Sagan wrote that he devoured Martian tales when he was a youth in the 1930s. Sagan, who died last year, described how his curiosity was inspired by science fiction and why he later dismissed the lore in a chapter of "Cosmos" titled "Blues for the Red Planet."

His 1980 book was written before the recent discovery on Earth of a meteorite from Mars that some scientists believe contains evidence of ancient life on that planet.

"Carl Sagan's `Blues for a Red Planet' reflected a time, but maybe it was a little early to sing the blues," said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, which was co-founded by Sagan.

Science fiction authors, including Ray Bradbury in the "Martian Chronicles" and Arthur C. Clarke in "The Snows of Mount Olympus," have raised other possibilities, including human colonization of Mars.

The ideas were discussed at Planetfest, a serious scientific conference.

"We're coming home to where we've been sending our dreams for years," said science fiction author David Brin.