Recently I’ve been doing quite a lot of reading about the so-called ‘canal controversy’ that occurred towards the end of the nineteenth century.  This debate had to do with the speculation over whether there was actually life on Mars and if the lines mapped out by certain astronomers were evidence of Martian infrastructure.  The fact that both the Suez and Panama canals were also under construction (or being planned) at this time adds a socio-cultural dimension to this debate that I really find quite fascinating.  In fact, the canal controversy is far from an obscure sidebar in the history of astronomy; it fed directly into the development of speculative science fiction and the eventual emergence of astrobiology.  Exobiology, or the notion of life on other planets, was hardly sparked by this controversy, but in the musings of Percival Lowell and others, the speculative energies that would later lead to its development were sown.  Such are the vagaries of scientific development that we have now returned to a more open-minded approach to the question of life on Mars.  Lowell and his supporters might have been marginalized by the mainstream astronomical community, but later discoveries – most notably the class of organisms now known as extremophiles – revived interest in exobiology and became a driving force in NASA’s development.  Speculation of life on Mars continues to drive budgets of major space agencies.  Here are a couple of links for anyone interested in finding out more: