Last night I stepped outside and looked to the southeast and could see Mars, a bright orange dot having high in the sky. I took a picture with my SkyView app and then pulled out my telescope to take a quick look at Mars itself. A few days earlier I saw an ad on Facebook that said “See Mars without a telescope!” and there are several posts that say the same thing.
What bonehead thought being able to see Mars without a telescope was a big deal? If Mars is above the horizon at night you can always see it without a telescope. It’s our second-nearest planetary neighbor. Venus is actually a little bit closer which may be why The Three Stooges went there first before they tackled Mars, but that’s another story.
And then I wondered why I felt so hostile to the people who were so excited they’d be able to see Mars with their own eyes. A few days ago after being in opposition Mars made its closest approach to Earth in more than a decade which explains why it’s unusually bright right now. So that is exciting. And I felt guilty for being annoyed because, well, sometimes I think we project the worst of ourselves onto Mars. In Greek and Roman mythology Mars or Ares was not really a good guy. There’s a reason the moons of Mars are named Phobos (Fear) and Deimos (Terror). He was the god of war, after all, and maybe it says something about us that he occupied a higher place in the pantheon than the god of peace. Do you know either the Greek or Roman god of peace? Give yourself five bonus points if you don’t have to go to Google. And ten bonus points if you do because you’re interested in learning.
Twentieth Century entertainment was bookended, sort of, by H.G. Wells’s War Of The Worlds and Mars Attacks! and hundreds, maybe even thousands, of movies about Martian invaders, and even more TV shows, books, and stories in between. Little Green Men From Mars is one of science fiction’s most recognized clichés, and they’re usually hostile.
In the middle there we also had Robert Heinlein’s Stranger In a Strange Land about an Earth child raised by Martians who then brings peace and love to our planet by having sex with everybody and his lesser-known young adult novel Red Planet. Both characterized the Martians as gentler, kinder, almost primitive folk and very distinctively alien. Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles took a more nuanced approach with Martians responding the way we might to potentially hostile alien invaders before being wiped out by human diseases. It was an eerie allegory that would be revisited decades later by Stephen Hawking when he said, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” Maybe that’s why most portrayals of Martians do make them hostile. We’re projecting the worst of ourselves onto our planetary neighbor. And it seems to me like we’ve thrown more at Mars than it’s thrown at us. Sure, it’s sent a few meteors our way, including one that caused some consternation, but we’ve sent numerous probes there. What has Mars done to deserve any of that? Maybe it’s a sign of real progress that Andy Weir’s The Martian and the film version are so popular. Maybe part of the appeal was that the story took Mars as it is and how it could potentially bring out the best in us rather than the worst.
All I am saying is give Mars a chance.