Saturday, February 16, 2008


Sidebar: Edgar Rice Burroughs

While our notional spaceship reduces trip time to Mars from many months to a few days, Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB) conveniently reduced it to nothing. Famous for creating the Tarzan character, ERB also wrote a series of popular fictional novels about Mars.

Several of ERB’s Martian novels had as the main character, John Carter, an American, who goes to sleep in a mysterious cave in the Arizona desert and wakes up on the planet Mars (“Barsoom” to the natives). He meets with many incredible adventures as well as many exotic Martian creatures.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was born on Sep 1, 1875, in Chicago, IL. His father had been a Union major in the Civil War. He attended good schools; but he did poorly academically. During his young adult years, he worked as a cowboy in Idaho, a gold miner in Oregon, a railroad policeman in Utah, a department manager for Sears, Roebuck in Chicago. He didn't start writing until the age of 35.

He first published "A Princess of Mars" as a serial in 1912 for "All-Story Magazine". (“Tarzan of the Apes" came out earlier that year in same periodical.) Quickly achieving fame and fortune, Burroughs moved his family to the San Fernando Valley in 1919 and converted a huge estate into Tarzana Ranch. He was in Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941 and remained in Hawaii as a war correspondent. Eventually, he returned home with a heart condition. On March 19, 1950, alone in his home (Encino, CA) after reading the Sunday comics in bed, he died of a heart attack. During his life, he wrote ninety-one novels, eleven about his fictional Mars. The man whose books have sold hundreds of millions of copies in over thirty languages once said "I write ... to escape poverty".

ERB's first Mars book was written under the pseudonym Norman Bean. Most of his stories are written in the first person. Russian dictator Joseph Stalin once said that Edgar Rice Burroughs was his favorite author. An excellent guide to Burroughs' Mars books is "A Guide to Barsoom" by John Flint Roy.
Surprisingly, Edgar Rice Burroughs was inspired to write about Mars on the basis of then current science. Mars was always an intriguing world. From prehistorical times, Mars has been readily visible; however, the first recorded formal observation was by Aristotle in 356 B.C. Galileo viewed it through his telescope on Mars in 1610 to record the phases.

In 1877, Schiaparelli was the first astronomer to identify the illusory features as Canals and produced a detailed map of Mars. This same year, the two Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos, were discovered. So there was a kind of ‘plausibility by association.’ If one new feature (the moons) were accepted, why not accept the other (the canals).

Schiaparelli repeated and elaborated on his observations two years later in another close approach in 1879, eventually identifying some sixty distinct canal like structures. He called them ‘Canali’ or channels, which did not necessarily mean they were products of intelligent life. Canals were next observed nine years later by a pair of astronomers but only infrequently thereafter.

Coincidentally, this was also an age of canals on Earth. The Suez Canal had been built in 1860, and the French had begun a canal in central America (now, Panama) to unite the Pacific and the Atlantic. Canals, even fairly large ones had been built in the United States and Canada, France and England, so they were well known, but the new giant Panama and Suez canals were much greater, transforming continents. It seemed intuitive that civilizations on Mars could and would build similar works.

Martian canals were being spotted independently by several observers, and their observations seemed fairly consistent. This suggested something real; so, the scientific and popular communities generally accepted their existence.

Percival Lowell made his critical observations in 1892 and 1894 (close approaches of Mars to Earth) and wrote his popular book on Mars, undoubtedly read by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Next close approaches happened in 1907 and 1909; these would have put Mars prominently in the news once again, only a few years before Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars.

Percival Lowell published his book “Mars” in 1895, when Burroughs was twenty. The work’s popularity was evidenced by articles in the New York Times (35 articles from 1895 to 1910) and the serialization of “Mars” in the Atlantic Monthly (Summer of 1895). Thus, Burroughs was likely aware of Lowell’s ideas; and many of Lowell’s facts about Mars turn up in Burroughs’s Barsoom.

Burroughs waxes lyrical in many instances about the glories of the Barsoomian night lit by dual moons. However, his objective description about Deimos and Phobos compare very well to those mentioned by Lowell.

Burroughs’ Barsoomian measurements also reflect Lowell’s Martian ones. His values gave a diameter of 4229.9 miles (for Mars). Lowell has the diameter as 4220 miles (“Mars as the Abode of Life”, 1908).

Burroughs made his Barsoomian day equal to 24.62 hours. This agrees quite well with the value Lowell reported in “Mars” of 24.623 hours. (24 hours, 37 minutes and 22.7 seconds; Lowell improved on the previously accepted 1666 estimate by Cassini of 24 hours and 40 minutes (24.67 hours)).

In “Gods of Mars” Burroughs gives the Martian year as 687 days (he did not specify Earth or Mars days, but the implication was that the measure was Earth days); Lowell gives the Martian year as 686.98 Earth days, an essentially identical value.

Upon his first advent on Barsoom John Carter is astonished to find that he can jump to great heights due, as he puts it, to the fact that “My muscles, perfectly attuned and accustomed to the force of gravity on Earth, played the mischief with me in attempting for the first time to cope with the lesser gravitation and lower air pressure on Mars.” This fits with Lowell’s description of both the lower atmospheric pressure and lesser gravity of Mars.

As to the air pressure, “Now, the pressure is certainly very slight on the surface of Mars; not probably more than, and probably less than, one seventh of an atmosphere”. Lowell also calculated the gravity of Mars to be 38% of Earth’s gravity.

These are some interesting parallels between Lowell’s Mars and Burroughs’ Barsoom; however, the most persuasive item is that it seems very likely that Burroughs used Lowell’s map in creating Barsoom. For more details, go to linked webpage: Burroughs's Barsoom and Lowell’s Mars: A Map for the Interpretation of Barsoomian Geography by Leathem Mehaffey.


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