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If You Plan to Land In Barren Fields on the Arizona Plain, Could You Call First So We Remember To Bring a Camera?

November 10, 2009

Since the Chaos Thaoghaire website and blog are still not quite ready, I wanted to post this over here for now.

Dear Martians, Probably you are a little bit mad at us because we make movies about you where you’re not exactly dignified, but hear me out. We’ve been trying to contact you, but we don’t have your number. And so we’ve sort of been driving slowly by your house, hoping you’ll notice us, and still you seem to pretend we don’t even exist. All you ever seem to do is poke hillbillies in the nethers. What gives, Mars? What’s even going on up there? Signed, Earthlings.

A friend of mine pointed me to this blog, which you will probably be directed to frequently now that I know about it because it involves going through other people’s things and reading their mail, which we’re told we’re technically not supposed to do, but whatever, it’s not like we didn’t think about asking first, we just got distracted. Anyway, in 1924, when broadcast radio was still young and new, a few significant people thought we could use it to talk to Mars. Only they didn’t know how to reach them.

So, in August 1924, when Mars and the Earth would pass more closely than they had since 1804, some enterprising astronomers and radio operators decided that we should just let our radios go silent in the hope that they would talk to us. You know, when they were in the area. And if they didn’t talk directly to us, we might at least catch them whistling in the dark. If you think that sounds like some reefer-fuelled fantasy, the New York Times suggested that the proof of the Pythagorean theorem be carved into the Siberian steppe, so that the Martian canal engineers would be so impressed by our advanced intellect that they would be inspired to come and check out our junk.

And of course people heard things. Much like the Knock-watchers last month saw the sun ‘dancing’, and the Michael Jackson seance-goers heard the King of Pop speak to them in a Liverpudlian accent, you just have to have faith in chatty spacepeople, mystical virgins and dead paedophiles, and be self-centred enough to believe that they want to strike up a conversation with you. The way we understand the possibility of life on Mars is a little less dramatic these days – and definitely less exciting – but the belief that there was life, not just the theoretical possibility of some kind of life on a distant planet, on our nearest and least-uninhabitable neighbour was very real, and very common. The discussion was not about whether or not we would recognise it as ‘life’, or if it was compatible life, or what counted as ‘life’, but whether these presumed-humanoid Marians would speak to us in a sort of Morse code, in an ‘alien tongue’, or perhaps in a ‘lilting Marian tune’ (perhaps confusing ‘Martian’ with then-contemporary recording artist ‘John McCormack’? Because really, how would you know?). It’s one of the reasons people fell hard for the 1938 War of the Worlds story (although we’ll leave that story for another day), and perhaps our need to believe in something bigger than ourselves is why every time there’s been a War of the Worlds rerun, people have bought it.

There was another Mars Opposition in 2003, when the planets were closer than they had been for 60,000 years but it’s not clear who was in charge of organising the radio silence. There won’t be another one until August 2287, by which time we’ll probably have a colony there and regular Chaos Thaoghaire Mars events, which you are more than welcome to attend, if you are in possession of a time machine*.

Is Mars Signaling to Us by Radio?

*If you are actually in possession of a time machine, could you please email me? We’ve got a list we would like to work through, and we promise it’s not all to do with food, though one of us wants to make out with a young Bruce Springsteen. And that one of us is me.

And since there’s nowhere else to stick in this link, etc etc.

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