This “missing the point” episode is a little different from the others in the series in that this time, it was the majority of people who missed the point.
Giovanni Schiaparelli was born today in 1835.
Schiaparelli was an astronomer and a historian. His most famous discovery was of what he called “canali” on Mars and here is where the problem begins. “Canali” could mean “channels”, as in river channels, or “canals” is in man/alien-made. It was translated into English as “canals” – and that word implies something that has been constructed and is artificial.
People around the world took this as evidence of life on Mars and subsequently all kinds of theories sprung up, books were written, maps were published, and all of these, without meaning to exaggerate, were utter bollocks. Some of these were even written by astronomers who in other areas were extremely successful, such as Percival Lowell.
Nevertheless, in an age where telescopes were not yet powerful enough to disprove the outlandish theories that had been constructed around the mistranslation, there were many true believers.
The best part of this story is that it provides a good example to point to when we would like to show that our (sic) leaders have any better idea what is going on than anyone else.
This example came when the story was finally disproved by the Mariner missions taking photos of Mars from closer in. Apparently, when Lyndon Johnson was shown the first pictures the first thing he said was “But where are the canals?”.
It would have been rather interesting to watch the presidential aides trying to explain that without offending him.