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Thread: The Lovely Lost Landscapes of Luna

  1. #1
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    The Lovely Lost Landscapes of Luna

    Isaac Asimov was a prolific essay and article writer as well as a science-fiction writer, and in 1966, he wrote "The Lovely Lost Landscapes of Luna", collected in one of his many essay collections, "Is Anyone There?" He wrote in it about the science fiction that he grew up with, early 20th cy. science fiction that featured lots of adventures in the Solar System. He also wrote about how he lived to see the Solar System discovered to be much more hostile than what many of those stories had depicted.

    As heliocentrism became widely accepted, a curious belief arose, that the rest of the Solar System was inhabited by a variety of organisms, including humanlike or more-or-less humanlike ones. That was very common in the 18th cy., but it then gradually faded, at least in the mainstream scientific community.

    For instance, in 1800, astronomer William Herschel proposed that the Sun was inhabited. Sunspots were breaks in an outer fiery layer, he proposed. Through them one could see the habitable parts of the Sun. But it was later discovered that sunspots are hot enough to glow, even if not as brightly as the surrounding material. In 1835, the New York Sun entertained everybody with its Great Moon Hoax, alleged discoveries of inhabitants on the Moon by astronomer John Herschel. But around then, astronomers Wilhelm Beer and Johann Heinrich Mädler concluded that the Moon has no bodies of water or noticeable atmosphere.

    By IA's childhood, in the 1920's and 1930's, it was recognized that the Sun and the Moon were not habitable by anything like humanity.


    But Mars seemed to have a chance for habitability. Percival Lowell had mapped its canals in detail, and he concluded that they were Martian engineering works. In a common planetary-formation scenario back then, the planets were formed outermost to innermost, meaning that Mars was older than the Earth. This meant that Mars was gradually drying up, and science-fictioneers had fun with various scenarios about it.
    1. The Martians were a wise and advanced race that was resigned to the inevitable, a race that was willing to offer its wisdom to brash youngsters like Earthlings.
    2. The Martians noticed a nice planet to live on, but a planet that already had inhabitants -- the Earth. So they tried to conquer it so they could move there. IA recalled enjoying stories of valiant Earthlings defeating villainous Martians.
    3. The Martian race had died out, leaving its artifacts behind, including canals. Arriving Earthlings then built colonies and puzzled over these ruins.

    But bad news kept coming from the observatories. Mars's atmosphere was as thin as atop Mt. Everest, if not thinner. There was no detectable oxygen. Some astronomers could not see the canals. However, there was some water. Then spacecraft starting visiting there. In 1965, Mariner 4 returned pictures of craters but no canals, and evidence that Mars's atmosphere was very thin. Was Mars much like the Moon? But in 1971, Mariner 9 went into orbit around that planet. Despite arriving during a dust storm, the spacecraft mapped the entire planet. No canals, but lots of of things besides craters. A huge rift valley. Huge volcanoes. Numerous dry riverbeds. In the years to come, spacecraft would land on its surface and wander around on it. Its atmosphere was indeed thin, and its surface a dusty, rocky desert.

    Yet a geological version of #3 has become mainstream, with Mars having lots of evidence of a thicker atmosphere, running water, and even oceans in its distant past.


    Turning to Venus, according to that cosmology, Venus was younger than the Earth, and was thus like the Earth in the Carboniferous: covered with a big jungle. IA recalls stories of mold threatening the plants or the plants fighting each other. Another common notion back then was that Venus was covered with a planetwide ocean. For a Lucky Starr novel, IA liked the idea enough to populate it with lots of weird sea creatures, including an octopuslike monster a mile in size.

    Mainstream astronomers also proposed an ocean of hydrocarbons and a desert. But Venus's surface turned out to be very hot. Radio observations, Mariner 2, and Mariner 5 gave hints of that, and the Venera landers confirmed it, measuring temperatures of over 460 C.


    Going to the outer planets, "In the Thumping Thirties, we peopled them all." Including Jupiter and Saturn. IA recalled some stories where Saturn's surface had big Wild West prairies with huge herds of cattle. He also wrote some stories about menaces from Ganymede and Callisto, two of Jupiter's four big moons. Titan was another favorite.

    Distance was no obstacle. One of the great stories in 1930 was the Solar System facing doom from villains inhabiting Neptune.


    The Earth itself? No El Dorado in Central America, no She in Africa, no Shangri-La in Tibet. The Earth isn't hollow, as is evident from earthquake waves traveling all the way through it.

    Other stars' planets? We are only beginning, and we've discovered several oddities. Hot Jupiters. Super-Earths. Mini-Neptunes. Earth-sized planets with super oceans. But an Earthlike planet orbiting a Sunlike star continues to be difficult to detect. IA concluded
    No, no, the stars are not enough. It's the solar system we want, the solar system they took away from us thirty years ago.

    The solar system we can never have again.

  2. #2
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    I have to disagree with him. While the rest of the Solar System may be lifeless, it's not boring. Asimov wrote his essay before it was discovered what Io is like, that Europa has a huge ocean (that might have life), the weirdness of Saturn's moons, the near-supersonic wind speed on Neptune, and that even Pluto is an active world.

    So there's not a native Martian civilization, boo hoo. That means that Mars is ours.
    Calm down, have some dip. - George Carlin

  3. #3
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    I concede that there are lots of interesting things that have been discovered about the Solar System. But that's not the same thing as discovering inhabitants. Discovering a long-gone era of liquid water and geological activity is not the same thing as discovering long-gone civilizations.

  4. #4
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    Even what organisms might exist elsewhere in the Solar System would be a big comedown from how those science-fiction stories depicted those places.

    There might be microbes continuing to live in cracks in Mars's crust, subsisting on chemical reactions between hydrogen from the planet's interior and carbon dioxide from its surface. But however interesting such a discovery would be, it is very far from the Martian engineers that Percival Lowell claimed to exist. Very, very, very far. As far as (say) we are from a hydrothermal-vent microbe.

  5. #5
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    I'd rather have the real Io than four-armed, green-skinned humanoid Martians that are doing the same crap that we're doing.
    Calm down, have some dip. - George Carlin

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