Monday, June 16, 2008

The Autographic Value Of Photographs

Just about a hundred years ago there was a big scientific controversy that oddly received a lot of attention in the popular press about the presence or absence of “canals” on Mars.

Back then, sometimes scientists became very famous, kind of like pop stars today. The astronomer Percival Lowell was one such famous scientist. Newspapers and magazines often ran his photo and published quotes from him about scientific issues of the day.

However, my understanding is that although Lowell was famous as an astronomer, he didn’t actually spend a great many nights putting in hour after hour of observing time at a telescope. He regarded himself more as a “thinker” and left the day-to-day (or night-to-night) observing chores to assistants. And from interviews I’ve read, that lack of observing time was Lowell’s chief handicap because when he did observe Mars himself, visual ‘artifacts’ of the telescope and seeing conditions led him to believe he was seeing straight-line surface features on Mars, the so-called ‘canals,’ which more experienced observers simply dismissed.

But because Lowell was so famous, his own assistants hesitated to step up and correct him when the controversy became public.

So it became a big, world-wide debate: Was there life on Mars? Did scientists have direct evidence of life on Mars in the canals many observers reported seeing?

Now, of course, we know the canals were visual artifacts of certain telescopes and certain seeing conditions. Now very large telescopes routinely image Mars, probes orbit Mars taking very detailed images of the surface and probes have even touched down on Mars and sent back photos and data from the surface.

Sadly—for us science fiction fans—there are no canals on Mars.

What I thought was most interesting, however, about the great debate a hundred years ago is that Percival Lowell often photographed Mars and—to his eyes—his photographs “proved” that the canals were real. Other people looked at the photographs and told him they saw nothing. When popular magazines and book publishers reproduced Lowell’s photographs, back then, Lowell suggested that he should hire somebody to “enhance” the photographs to “bring out” the linear detail that he could see but which printing had difficulty reproducing. Back then, publishers and editors adamantly refused to create such re-touched photographs because they argued the manipulations would “spoil the autographic value of the photographs themselves.” [quoted from, “The Great Mars Chase of 1907,” by William Sheehan & Anthony Misch, Sky & Telescope, November 2007]

Oh my!

Once upon a time, publishers and editors refused to ‘enhance’ photographs because doing so would spoil the autographic value of the photographs.

The very thought of publishers and editors making such a case, today, sounds more like science fiction than the thought of life on Mars!

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