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Arthur C. Clarke and the Forests of Mars

Perhaps one of the most famous science fiction authors of all time is the legendary British writer, inventor, and explorer Sir Arthur Charles Clarke. Penning such beloved science fiction classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as dozens of other books and numerous articles on the fantastical worlds beyond our imagination, as well as winner of countless writing awards, including the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards, he is among the most recognizable authors in the genre who has ever lived. He would go on to become a great undersea explorer as well, and a seeker of various world mysteries, famously hosting the classic TV program Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World. In addition to writing and other pursuits, Clarke was also a visionary thinker and futurist, thinking up such ideas as satellite communications, tablet devices, and other amazing technological innovations well before their times, and his predictions about future trends were more often than not astoundingly accurate. One area that Clarke really found fascinating was the idea of human colonization of the planet Mars, as well as the possibility of life there, and some of his ideas on the matter of Martian life are very bizarre and unorthodox to say the least.

One of the strangest claims that Clarke made was after noticing something he saw as odd in a series of images from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor. This was a mission launched in November of 1996 as a part of the larger Mars Exploration Program, and had the aim of mapping out the entire planet, as well as identifying good landing sites for rovers and landers on the surface. It would successfully complete its mission in 2001, before suddenly and mysteriously ceasing transmissions in 2006 during the second, extended phase of its mission. Before contact with the spacecraft was lost, it had managed to send back reams of data on the planet and its surface, and it was as Clarke examined these that he made the observation that some features of the landscape seemed to change with the seasons. What did he think this meant? Why, that there were trees and bushes on Mars, of course. Clarke would say of this:

I’m now convinced that Mars is inhabited by a race of demented landscape gardeners. I’m quite serious when I say have a really good look at these new Mars images. Something is actually moving and changing with the seasons that suggests, at least, vegetation. The image is so striking that there is no need to say anything about it — it’s obviously vegetation to any unbiased eye.

Arthur C. Clarke

In particular, he pointed out several features that he claimed looked remarkably like Earth banyan trees, which really did shift with the seasons, and he wasn’t joking around, in fact mentioning this several times to an audience gathered at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, for a lecture he was attending remotely from Sri Lanka. It is true that he was very serious, despite the chuckles and raised eyebrows it provoked from the scientific community, and it must be remembered that Clarke was no quack or loon, but rather one of the greatest futurists and science thinkers of his time. He would even elaborate further when questioned by Popular Science about whether he thought there was animal life up there as well, to which he said:

If there is vegetation, it seems probable there are other life-forms as well. But they (skeptics) are right to be cautious — we still don’t have 100 percent proof. I think it’s in the high nineties! Nothing could be more important than the discovery of other life-forms. It’s getting lonely down here.

Unfortunately for Clarke, who died in 2008, rovers have yet to find any evidence of these “banyan trees” on Mars, and scientists mostly believe the dark splotches he observed are caused by natural phenomena, but it just goes to show what a planetary Rorschach blot Mars has become since we first started observing it from afar. From canals on Mars to giant faces, roads, pyramids, cities, and other seemingly artificial structures, as well as forests, spaceships, and even handguns, as our technology has progressed people have been seeing all manner of strange stuff on the red planet, but most of this has been explained away to distorted perceptions, tricks of shadow and light, and our innate desire to see patterns in things. It’s a phenomenon known as “pareidolia,” the same thing that makes us see familiar shapes in random clouds, and astronomer Phil Plait has explained of this, “It’s very clear that human brains are designed to pick out patterns. If you can’t pick out the tiger hiding in the grass, you are lunch; you don’t reproduce.”

An image from Mars showing Clarke’s “forests”

Regardless, people continue to find numerous anomalies on Mars, some of which are difficult to explain away, and as our technology gets better this is likely to get even more intense. There is a lot of debate on how real some of these anomalous images are, as well as conspiracies that NASA is covering up what it finds on Mars, and although evidence of these fringe theories is scant, it all serves to show just how much fascination the red planet generates in us. So far, we haven’t found any concrete proof of life on Mars, but the dream is still very much alive, and as we expand out into the solar system there are sure to be mysteries and possibly even life. Arthur C. Clark was very excited about the future prospects of this, and said at a panel joined by fellow great thinker Carl Sagan:

We are now in a very interesting historic moment with regard to Mars. I’m not going to make any definite predictions because it would be very foolish to go out on a limb, but whatever happens, whatever discoveries are made in the next few days or weeks or months, the frontier of our knowledge is moving inevitably outward.

 

It has already embraced the Moon. We still have a great deal to learn about the Moon and there will be many surprises even there, I’m sure. But the frontier is moving on and our viewpoint is changing with it. We’re discovering, and this is a big surprise, that the Moon, and I believe Mars, and parts of Mercury, and especially space itself, are essentially benign environments — to our technology, not necessarily to organic life. Certainly benign as compared to the Antarctic or the oceanic abyss, where we have already been. This is an idea which the public still hasn’t got yet, but it’s a fact.

 

I think the biological frontier may very well move past Mars out to Jupiter, which I think is where the action is. Carl, you’ve gone on the record as saying that Jupiter may be a more hospitable home for life than any other place, including Earth itself. It would be very exciting if this turns out to be true. I will end by making one prediction. Whether or not there is life on Mars now, there will be by the end of this century.

Clarke would insist to his dying day that there was life on Mars and would not back down from his theories. It doesn’t seem that the forests described by Arthur C. Clarke actually ever existed at this point, but it is indicative of our long fascination with the Red Planet and life beyond our own world. As we delve further into the mysteries that Mars and the other planets in our solar system, perhaps we will uncover new wonders we can only dream of. Maybe our endless exploration will finally turn up the evidence of life we crave, and one can only hope, those forests that Clarke talked about all those years ago.