Monday, December 5, 2011

The “canali” intermezzo in the history of Martian exploration

In 1869 the word canali (Italian for channels) was introduced into areography by Pietro Angelo Secchi (1818-1878), a Jesuit monk and director of the Roman College Observatory, who had produced the first color sketches of Mars in 1863. The term canali referred to dark streaks seen on the Martian surface. They already appeared (unnamed) on drawings by the German amateur astronomer Johann Hieronymus Schroeter (1745-1816) and the English astronomer William Dawes (1799-1868). When Pater Secchi came up with the term canali, he was probably inspired by the construction of the Suez Canal, happening during that time [1,2].

Eventually, the canali on Mars became associated with Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910), who thought he had spotted double canali in 1879 and, two years later, revised his Mars maps by adding even more canali [1]. Schiaparelli is responsible for various areographic names of Martian structures. With the beginning of high resolution mapping and spacecraft exploration of Mars, the canali turned out to be an optical illusion.  

The Italian noun canali (plural of canale) happened to be mistranslated in English-speaking countries into “canal,” typically referring to an artificially constructed waterway or irrigation structure. The correct translation is “channel” [3]. The canal association resulted into those familiar speculations fantasizing about an agriculturally active population on our neighbor planet. 

Making headlines of all kinds, the canali affair is an excellent example of naming and mistranslating something that does not even exist. Much ado about nothing.

Keywords: astronomy, planetary science, areology (science of Mars), areography (geology of Mars), history, linguistics, Italian-English translation.

References and more to explore
[1] Planet Mars Chronology:
[2] Ulf von Rauchhaupt: Der Neunte Kontinent - Die wissenschaftliche Eroberung des Mars. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, November 2010; page 37.
[3] Exploring Mars - What we know about the red planet:

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