This is what Mars looked like to early researchers. Using the M*cr*s*ft colour cube the planet is 100% red, 40% green, 20% blue. Use an art program to draw this as a filled circle, diameter approx 1" (2.54 cms) on a black background. The picture should fill the screen so all you can see is a dark background with a single bright circle floating upon it.
Being weaned on SF in the days when you could buy good mags at any W H Smith's, I have always had a soft spot for the old Mars, the red planet of the early pioneers. Forget Viking and Rover, forget the ultra-detailed maps of frozen and barren desert, my internal Mars will always be the rust-red orb streaked with complementary green that astromomers saw wavering in their telescopes at the turn of the century, the planet transmogrified by their contemporaries into a place of science-fiction magic. Normally I would approve of planetary exploration, but the difference between the SF Mars and the real thing has made my support less than whole-hearted. Up to now.
One of the more irritating aspects of being interested in science but untrained is the urge to think of something new without the mental discipline or equipment. This, combined with a lack of training, gives me a tendency to fall for any pseudo-scientific rubbish that is touted with a sufficient show of conviction and complexity, things like astrology, phrenology, aromatherapy, Martian canals.....but hang on a minute. I've always had this secret belief that one day I'd notice something the scientists had ignored, some observation they had dismissed as rubbish out of hand. Let's gloss over my independant invention of metal detectors (I assume they work by back EMF, if not you read it here first) and my theory that chaotic firing of matter from accreting stars by slingshot accounts for the missing mass. I really think I'm on to something with these Martian canals. Lowell actually saw them and so can you.
Have you drawn the circle? Right, ready for the experiment. The next bit is quite enjoyable. Sit in a darkened room staring at this image, with perhaps a couple of pints of homebrew to keep you from becoming too bored. Sip, sit and stare. Repeat. The phenomenon appears quite quickly - the circle seems to be overlaid by a network of faint bluish lines. Not all people can see them, but a reasonable percentage can. The shade of pink or magenta is not critical, but a touch of blue in the mixture enhances the effect, as does the consumption of the home-brew (a fact that makes getting volunteers an easy process). If you can make the image jiggle slightly, simulating atmospheric disturbance, then all the better, although it is not essential if your programming ability isn't up to it. Don't shake the monitor, it's expensive.
What is this pattern? Here we enter the realm of speculation, but I've got this theory. The retina is covered by a network of veins - you can see them in any photo taken with an on-camera flash: they are what causes the red glow in the eyes of party-goers. There are some nice opthalmoscope pictures in Gray's Anatomy which show what they look like close up, a spreading network of red across the nerve-mat. There must be some brain mechanism to process them out, otherwise the world would appear to us as overlaid by lines, except for the avascular fovea area which occupies the centre of our visual field.The artificial enviroment of my little experiment brings about a failure of the processing, allowing us to see the veins across our own retinas in the complementary colour, in this case blue-green. Each 'Martian canal system' is unique, a retina print as distinct as any fingerprint. From this pale web of shadows grew all the complexities of early Martian SF. Those scantily clad princesses, blood-sucking kangaroos and spun-glass cities were not only formed inside the heads of writers, they were in other heads as well, bathed in aqueous humour.
Poor old Lowell, he wasn't the first by any means to see this effect. The Jesuit Secchi had used the word 'canale' in 1860 to describe what he thought had seen on Mars. Schiaparelli in 1877 found the network 'just visible in periods of good seeing'. Then in 1903 Evans and Mander tried an experiment using schoolchildren and found a tendency for an observer to join irregular and barely visible markings together with straight lines, a result that led to the dismissal of the canals as imagination run riot. I cannot confirm their result. Dim spots and streaks on the computer-screen Mars remain just that. Actually, I thought 'arrant nonsense" when I first read Evan's and Mander's suggestion, but one must try to be open-minded. Now I can say it loud and clear with a pristine conscience. Their suggestion was arrant nonsense.I doubt if many scientists have bothered to try looking at the sort of image Lowell and the others had to cope with, namely an unsteady, self-illuminated red blob against a black background. It is always easier to use the latest and best data, always easier to use a picture than a projection. The most recent photographs prove conclusively that the canals do not exist. Even so Lowell did see them though they were inside his own head, not on the surface of Mars. Oddly enough the Italian word 'canale' has another, biological, meaning, that of tube or duct. Inadvertantly, Secchi was correct.Having solved that problem (and thrown some light on the visual field) I'm now thinking about the coincidence of the initial success and subsequent failure of cold fusion with the 1989 super-nova neutrino flux, while pondering its implication for spontaneous human combustion. The ideas I am chasing may be wrong but you never know, perhaps they will produce images as strong and enduring as any summoned up by those magical words, 'the canals of Mars'.