Lunar Bat-men, the Planet Vulcan and Martian Canals

Five of science history’s most bizarre cosmic delusions

Improved telescope technology, the New York Sun reported, allowed an astronomer to see fantastic lunar life-forms. (Granger Collection, New York)
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Bat-Men On The Moon!
One August morning in 1835, readers of the New York Sun were astonished to learn that the Moon was inhabited. Three-quarters of the newspaper's front page was devoted to the story, the first in a series entitled "Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel, L.L.D, F.R.S, &c At The Cape of Good Hope." Herschel, a well-known British astronomer, was able "by means of a telescope of vast dimensions and an entirely new principle," the paper reported, to view objects on the Moon as though they were "at the distance of a hundred yards." Each new story in the six-part series reported discoveries more fantastic than the last.

Herschel's telescope revealed lunar forests, lakes and seas, "monstrous amethysts" almost a hundred feet high, red hills and enormous chasms. Populating this surreal landscape were animals resembling bison, goats, pelicans, sheep—even unicorns. Beavers without tails walked on two legs and built fires in their huts. A ball-shaped amphibian moved around by rolling. There were moose, horned bears and miniature zebras. But the biggest surprise of all was reserved for the fourth article in the series. Herschel and his team of astronomers had spotted humanoids: bipedal bat-winged creatures four feet tall with faces that were "a slight improvement" on the orangutan's. Dubbed Vespertilio-homo (or, informally, the bat-man), these creatures were observed to be "innocent," but they occasionally conducted themselves in a manner that the author thought might not be fit for publication.

The Sun also described massive temples, though the newspaper cautioned that it was unclear whether the bat-men had built them or the structures were the remnants of a once-great civilization. Certain sculptural details—a globe surrounded by flames—led the Sun's writer to wonder whether they referred to some calamity that had befallen the bat-men or were a warning about the future.

Reaction to the series—an effort to boost circulation, which it did—ranged from amazed belief to incredulity. Herschel himself was annoyed. In a letter to his aunt Caroline Herschel, also an astronomer, he wrote, "I have been pestered from all quarters with that ridiculous hoax about the Moon—in English French Italian & German!!" The author of the piece was most likely Richard Adams Locke, a Sun reporter. The newspaper never admitted it concocted the story. It's tempting to think that we're immune to such outlandish hoaxes today, and perhaps we are. But a passage from the series reminds us that we're not as different from our forebears of almost 200 years ago as we might think. When Herschel made his supposed optic breakthrough, the Sun reported, a colleague leapt into the air and exclaimed: "Thou art the man!"

Planet Vulcan Found!
Vulcan is best known today as the fictional birthplace of the stoic Mr. Spock on "Star Trek," but for more than half a century it was considered a real planet that orbited between Mercury and the Sun. More than one respectable astronomer claimed to have observed it.

Astronomers had noticed several discrepancies in Mercury's orbit. In 1860, French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier speculated that an undetected planet exerting a gravitational pull on Mercury could account for the odd orbit. He named it Vulcan.

An astronomer named Edmond Lescarbault said he had spotted the planet the previous year. Other astronomers pored over reports of previous sightings of objects crossing in front of the Sun. Occasional sightings of planet-like objects were announced, each prompting astronomers to recalculate Vulcan's orbit. After the solar eclipse of 1878, which gave astronomers a rare opportunity to see objects normally obscured by the Sun's glare, two astronomers reported they had seen Vulcan or other objects inside Mercury's orbit.

Le Verrier was awarded the Légion d'honneur for predicting the location of a real planet: Neptune. He died in 1877 still believing he had also discovered Vulcan. It took until 1915 and improved photography and the acceptance of Einstein's general theory of relativity, which explained Mercury's orbital discrepancies, for the idea to be laid to rest. The observations of the phantom planet were either wishful thinking or sunspots.

Martians Build Canals!
Percival Lowell peered through a telescope on an Arizona hilltop and saw the ruddy surface of Mars crisscrossed with canals. Hundreds of miles long, they extended in single and double lines from the polar ice caps. Bringing water to the thirsty inhabitants of an aging planet that was drying up, the canals were seen as a spectacular feat of engineering, a desperate effort by the Martians to save their world.

Lowell was an influential astronomer, and the canals, which he mapped with elaborate precision, were a topic of scientific debate during the early 20th century. We know now that the canals didn't exist, but how did this misperception begin?

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