Month: October 2019

The Twilight Zone, Mars, and Percival Lowell

The Twilight Zone episode “People are Alike All Over” opens as a rocket launches for Mars, Rod Serling’s voice intoning:

They’re taking a highway into space. Man unshackling himself and sending his tiny, groping fingers up into the unknown. Their destination is Mars. And in just a moment we’ll land there with them.

It is the Twilight Zone, so you can be sure the rocket will crash, stranding the astronauts on Mars where they will suffer some not-quite-as-it-seems experience that is meant to convey some lesson.[1] The episode was adapted from a Paul W. Fairman story, “Brothers Beyond the Void.” What caught my attention was not the literary debt, however, but was the visual reference to the canals of Mars, images made popular by Percival Lowell’s sustained efforts to study the planet.

About 30 seconds into the show we see the rocket[2] gliding toward Mars and then the scene cuts to a full-frame shot of Mars.

Highlights the image of Mars in the episode to compare it to Lowell's images of Mars.
The image of Mars in the Twilight Zone episode.

This image seems obviously inspired by Lowell’s drawings of the canals on Mars. While by no means identical (or at least, I haven’t found a drawing by Lowell that is identical) they are remarkably similar. See, for example, this drawing by Lowell:

Shows how Lowell's image of Mars resembles the image in the Twilight Zone.
One of Lowell’s many illustrations of Mars, showing the canals and oases.

Lowell was enamored with Mars and things Martian. He built his observatory in Flagstaff in order to observe Mars. He studied the planet for years, publishing three books on it: Mars, Mars and Its Canals, and Mars As the Abode of Life. These books and his other scientific/astronomical publications contained numerous drawings of the features that Lowell was convinced were canals and oases. He thought these canals transported water melting from polar icecaps to the increasingly arid portions of the planet. He was also convinced that he had observed these oases grow and shrink throughout the year. Both were evidence that intelligent beings lived on Mars.


  1. I won’t reveal the twist. If you want to know, watch the episode or read the wikipedia page linked above.  ↩

  2. The rocket that launched from the earth looks nothing like the rocket floating through space. I guess with the reduced gravity and drop in atmospheric pressure the entire ship expanded.  ↩

Of Astrolabes and Wine

Further evidence that astrolabes are infiltrating culture is the name of winery in New Zealand: Astrolabe.

A winery in New Zealand has adopted the name “Astrolabe.”

Unfortunately, this winery is not really named after the instrument. Instead, situated in the Marlborough region of New Zealand, the winery is named “after the ship that in 1827 charted and explored the Marlborough Coast.” That ship was called “L’Astrolabe” (presumably after the instrument).

The L’Astrolabe was certainly the name of a ship, but an astrolabe isn’t now nor ever was a navigational instrument.

As much as I like the connection to the ship and the instrument, I regret that the owners have been mislead by a common myth about astrolabes being used as navigational instruments. Despite what we often hear and read, astrolabes were not navigational instruments. Yes, they could be used to determine elevation of celestial objects (as well as doing a whole host of calculations), but they were never used to navigate.[1]

Whatever the case, references to astrolabes are turning up more often in popular culture (even GoT jumped on the “astrolabe” bandwagon). Before long we are likely to see Astrolabe return the lists of popular baby names. Abelard and Héloïse were just a few centuries ahead of their time.


  1. Yes, the “Mariner’s astrolabe” was used to determine the elevation of celestial objects and thereby help to determine location. But that’s a different instrument. And while some people will argue that they are similar enough to allow for the slippage from one term to another, I am not such a person. Moreover, I would argue against the validity of claiming that one was subset of the other. And because this is my little sandbox, I get to be as pedantic and particular as I wish.  ↩

The Byzantine Astrolabe

I can’t reconstruct how I came across this page, but now that I have I can’t let it go without some comment. A search for the pair of terms “Brescia astrolabe” or “Byzantine astrolabe” gives as the second result a link to a Wikimedia page, Byzantine astrolabe at Brescia, 5th century AD (reconstruction).jpg

Some Wikimedia user thinks this astrolabe is a reconstruction of a 5th-century instrument. It’s not.

A quick point: this astrolabe is not a reconstruction of a “5th-century” astrolabe. The Byzantine astrolabe now in City Museum in Brescia is from the 11th century. It’s dated 1062, to be precise.

I wonder: the user who uploaded the image claims it was taken at The Technology Museum in Thessaloniki. Did the museum mislabel this display? Did the Wikimedia user misread/mislabel the file? I could not find a page for this astrolabe (I assume it is part of the Ancient Greek Technology) so I can’t determine if the museum is to blame here. The Wikimedia user claims to be a native Greek speaker, so misreading the label might surprise me. But who knows.

I assume the reconstruction is somewhere in this gallery at The Technology Museum in Thessaloniki.

In any case, if want to know more about the Brescia astrolabe you should download David King’s thoughts on this astrolabe, Byzantine Astrolabe of 1062. Or read O.M. Dalton’s old but still very reliable essay, The Byzantine Astrolabe at Brescia (1926). Regrettably, there are no high-resolution images of it on the internet, so you’ll just have to travel to Brescia to see it. In the mean time, here is (a copy) of the image from Dalton’s essay.

The front of the Byzantine astrolabe (from Dalton’s essay).

Filed under “Amusing Diversion”

Working through a manuscript I came across this folio with a large diagram of the zodiac in the center.

A folio from a 14th-c. astrological manuscript, with a large diagram of the signs in the middle.

What caught my attention was the drawing in the upper right corner. The scribe seems to have thrown his arms up in confusion (?), exasperation (?), or simply resignation. Either that, or he’s being held up at spearpoint. I don’t know what prompted the scribe to draw this figure, but I am amusing myself thinking through different scenarios.

I sympathize with his plight (ok, not the being held up at spearpoint bit).