To mark our 150th year, we’re revisiting the Popular Science stories (both hits and misses) that helped define scientific progress, understanding, and innovation—with an added hint of modern context. Explore the entire From the Archives series and check out all our anniversary coverage here.
Perhaps best known for his colorful depiction of life on Mars in Popular Science’s May 1930 feature, “Do Beavers Rule On Mars?”, science writer Thomas Elway was no stranger to conjecture. In addition to his prediction of a ruling class of Red Planet beavers whose “eyes might be larger than those of the Earthly beaver because the sunlight is not so strong,” and whose “bodies might be larger because of lesser Martian gravity,” Elway also described a species of crab that might inhabit the Moon (“The Moon is Made of Cinders”, Popular Science, December 1929). These shellfish donned hard outer shells to “prevent loss of bodily fluids into airless space” and “eyes which could turn sunlight into food.”
When it came to fantasizing about life among the cosmos, Elway was not alone at the turn of the last century. Advances in physics, telescope technology, and rocket science sparked the imaginations of more than just science journalists. Hugo Gernsback launched America’s first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, in 1926, which featured tales and images of alien life. Often blurring the lines between science fiction and science fact, the budding genre was known as scientifiction.
To be fair, not all Elway’s predictions flirted so openly with make-believe. In a 1924 story for Popular Radio, “Rapid Transit By Radio,” he predicted that the same electromagnetic forces used to propagate radio waves would soon be harnessed to levitate trains. Elway’s “Radio Express” would run through “air-tight tubes” that might travel at speeds of 10,000 mph, whisking Midwesterners “in a few minutes to the door of a Broadway theatre.” Nearly a century later, on November 8, 2020, passengers traveled 680 miles per hour through an airtight tube in a trial of Virgin’s Hyperloop. Elon Musk is chasing the “Radio Express” too. But even massive wealth can’t transform science fiction into science fact. Go ask Elway.
“Do beavers rule on Mars?” (Thomas Elway, May 1930)
No trace of human intelligence has been found on the red planet, and it is thought that evolution, through lack of the stress that helped on earth, may have halted with some animal adapted to a land and water life.
Mars is so like the Earth that men might live there. It has air, water, vegetation, a twenty-four-hour succession of day and night, and daily temperatures no hotter and nights not much colder than are known on Earth. But because Mars has no mountain ranges and probably never had an Ice Age, it is considered highly improbable that it is inhabited by manlike creatures or by any that possess what men call intelligence. The evolution of life on Mars must have been different from that on Earth.
One of the best signs of intelligence on Mars, Dr. Clyde Fisher, of the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, said recently, would be some indication of artificial light on the planet. Undoubtedly, lighted cities on Mars could be seen through the telescopes now in use. However, there is one condition that prevents satisfactory and conclusive observation. When Mars is closest to the Earth, both planets are on the same side of the sun. Then only the sunlit side of liars is seen. To see any part of the night side of Mars, observation must be made when it is part way around in its orbit toward the far side of the sun, so that a slice of both the dark and the lighted sides can be seen. When even a part of the night side is visible, Mars is relatively far away and difficult to see dearly. The Martians, if there are any, would not have equal difficulty in observing the dark side of the Earth, for when the two planets are nearest to each other, the Earth is showing Mars its dark side.
These consequences of the orbits in which the two planets move might make it difficult for the dim glow of lighted Martian villages, were any such in existence, to be detected from the Earth. Cities as bright as New York or Paris, on the other hand, undoubtedly would be visible. With the new 200-inch telescope which, it is planned, will be erected in California, it surely would be possible, Dr. Fisher predicted, to distinguish such brightly lighted cities, if any such Martian centers of civilization exist. If such artificial lights are never seen, he added, it might go a long way toward proving that Mars does not possess intelligent life. Other students of the subject, however, say it is possible that Martian civilization may correspond to that of an earlier. pre-artificial light era on Earth. In any case, astronomers agree that there is a practical certainty that Mars possesses kinds of life below human intelligence.
Any deduction about the life forms on Mars or other planets, in the opinion of leading astronomers, must start, if it is to be at all reasonable, with the idea of the distinguished Swedish scientist, Dr. Svante Arrhenius, of one kind of life-germ pervading the entire solar system. There is no reasonable way even to guess the form of this life-germ. It may, perhaps, have drifted, as tiny living spores, from planet to planet, whirled through space by the pressure of light.
Whatever its form, the life-germ, biologists assume, probably developed on Mars, much as it did on Earth, in oceans which have evaporated in the course of ages. Early conditions on the two planets are supposed to have been very similar.
The theory that Martian life evolved along lines similar to those followed by evolution of life on Earth is supported by at least one definite fact. Careful spectroscopic studies at ML Wilson Observatory, near Pasadena, Calif., and elsewhere have disclosed that gaseous oxygen exists in the Martian atmosphere. The presence of oxygen gas is highly significant, since the only known way in which any planet can obtain a supply of this gas is through the life activities of plants.
Following the lead of the great expert in Martian astronomy, the late Professor Percival Lowell, astronomers long have recognized on Mars dark-colored spots which are believed to be covered with vegetation. The oxygen which spectroscopes show in the Martian air is taken as another proof that this vegetation exists.
Since the activity of plants is the only known process of cosmic chemistry by which free oxygen can be produced on the surface of a cooled planet, the presence of oxygen in the rarefied air of Mars indicates that vegetation there must have produced oxygen out of water and sunlight as it has done on earth. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance to Martian theorizing of the definite fact that Mars has oxygen and, therefore, vegetation.
A certain way along the path of evolution, Martian life shows evidence of having undergone a development like that on Earth. What happened after that is a matter of deduction. The known facts about Mars are the fruits of years of astronomical observation and study. The dark and light markings on its surface can be seen through a large telescope. The lighter ones are reddish or yellowish and usually are interpreted as being deserts. The darker areas are greenish or bluish in color and are universally ascribed to vegetation. Mars possesses two white polar caps. Recent measurements of Martian temperatures by Dr. W. W. Coblentz and Dr. C. O. Lampland, at the Flagstaff Observatory indicate that these are composed of snow and ice.
In the Martian autumn these caps increase and become whiter. In the planet’s spring they shrink and often seem to be surrounded by wide rings of bluish or blackish material, which may be sheets of water or vegetation. Still more significant are the springtime changes in the planet’s area of supposed vegetation. Many of these darken in color. Others widen or lengthen. Often new dark areas appear where none had been visible during the Martian winter. Few astronomers now doubt that these dark areas represent some kind of vegetation.
So far, everything runs strikingly parallel with evolution on Earth. It is probable that it will be found to have run parallel farther still and that animal life on both planets, too, has been similar—for at least part of the evolutionary story. But during all the years of earnest and competent research not one clear sign of manlike life on Mars had been detected. Professor Lowell’s famous Martian “canals,” which for a long time were considered a probable sign of the intelligent direction of water, are now believed to be wide, shallow river valleys.
This lack of manlike life is precisely what a biologist would expect. Man and man’s active mind are believed to be products of the Great Ice Age, for that time of stress and competition on Earth is what is supposed to have turned mankind’s anthropoid ancestors into humans. The period of ice and cold over wide areas of the earth was caused, at least in part, but the elevation of continents and mountain ranges. On Mars, no mountain ranges exist, and it probably never had an Ice Age.
It is on these hypotheses that science bases its assumption that there is no human intelligence on Mars, and that animal life on the planet is still in the age of instinct. The thing to expect on Mars, then, is a fish life much like that on earth, the emergence of this fish life onto the land, and the evolution of these Martian land-fishes into reptile-like creatures. Finally, animals resembling Earth’s present rodents like rats, squirrels, and beavers would make their appearance.
The chief reason to expect this final change of Martian reptiles into primitive mammals lies in the fact that on Earth this evolution seems to have been forced by changeable weather. And Mars now possesses seasonal changes like those on Earth.
Pure biological reasoning makes it probable, therefore, that the evolution of warm-blooded animals may have occurred on Mars much as it did here. There seems no reason to believe that Martian life has gone farther than that. Mars is a relatively changeless planet. Biologists suppose that the rise and fall of mountains, the increase and decrease in volcanic activity, and the ebb and flow of climate forced life on earth along its upward path. Martian life of recent ages seems to have lacked these natural incentives to better things.
Now, there is one creature on Earth for the development of whose counterpart the supposed Martian conditions would be ideal. That animal is the beaver. It is either land-living or water-living. It has a fur coat to protect it from the 100 degrees below zero of the Martian night.
The Martian beavers, of course, would not be exactly like those on Earth. That they would be furred and water-loving is probable. Their eyes might be larger than those of the earthly beaver because the sunlight is not so strong, and their bodies might be larger because of lesser Martian gravity. Competent digging tools certainly would be provided on their claws. The chests of these Martian beavers would be larger and their breathing far more active, as there is less oxygen in the air on Mars.
Such beaver-Martians are nothing more than pure speculation, but the idea is based upon the known facts that there is plenty of water on Mars; that vegetation almost certainly exists there; that Mars has no mountains and could scarcely have had an Ice Age; and that evidences of Martian life are not accompanied by signs of intelligence.
Herds of beaver-creatures are at least a more reasonable idea than the familiar fictional one of humanlike Martians digging artificial water channels with vast machines or the still more fantastic notion of octopuslike Martians sufficiently intelligent to plan the conquest of the Earth.
Some text has been edited to match contemporary standards and style.