Is Anyone Out There? Searching for Aliens in the PopSci Archives

Bogus canals on Mars, alien germs from Venus and the "truth" behind UFOs

This week, NASA discussed their plans to explore Mars and Titan for signs of life, while Stephen Hawking warned against hostile aliens. So, being in an extraterrestrial-seeking mood, we’ve taken to the archives, where speculation about interplanetary neighbors–be they hyper-intelligent beings, primitive microbes or Martian beavers–has long filled our pages.

Click to launch the photo gallery

As the 19th century drew to a close, astronomer Percival Lowell became one of the early figureheads in the scientific search for alien life when he published a series of books envisioning an elaborate canal system on Mars, presumably built by an ancient civilization. Unlike naturally winding rivers on Earth, the lines Lowell observed on Mars through his powerful telescope in Arizona he deemed too straight and organized to be naturally created.

While the scientific community came to discredit Lowell’s “findings” on Martian canals, his ideas nonetheless inspired a public fervor for legitimate evidence of extraterrestrial life. What would the aliens look like, we wondered—do they walk on two legs? How would they communicate with humans? Will they visit Earth, or will we visit them?

Our search for aliens might not have progressed as far as our grandparents had hoped, but articles from our 137-year archive only emphasize how far we’ve come since Lowell’s claim of polar ice caps on Mars.

Click through our gallery for fun illustrations of futuristic spaceships and cosmic “civilizations” (we use that term loosely — you’ll see why).