While I was glancing at the Times newspaper in a morning train
for London my eyes fell on the following item:—
A STRANGE LIGHT ON MARS.—On Monday afternoon, Dr. Krueger, who
is in charge of the central bureau at Kiel, telegraphed to his
"Projection lumineuse dans région australe du terminateur de
Mars observée par Javelle 28 courant, 16 heures.—Perrotin."
In plain English, at 4 a.m., a ray of light had been observed on
the disc of the planet Mars in or near the "terminator"; that is to
say, the zone of twilight separating day from night. The news was
doubly interesting to me, because a singular dream of "Sunrise in
the Moon" had quickened my imagination as to the wonders of the
universe beyond our little globe, and because of a
never-to-be-forgotten experience of mine with an aged astronomer
several years ago.
This extraordinary man, living the life of a recluse in his own
observatory, which was situated in a lonely part of the country,
had, or at any rate, believed that he had, opened up a
communication with the inhabitants of Mars, by means of powerful
electric lights, flashing in the manner of a signal-lantern or
heliograph. I had set him down as a monomaniac; but who knows?
perhaps he was not so crazy after all.
When evening came I turned to the books, and gathered a great
deal about the fiery planet, including the fact that a stout man, a
Daniel Lambert, could jump his own height there with the greatest
ease. Very likely; but I was seeking information on the strange
light, and as I could not find any I resolved to walk over and
consult my old friend, Professor Gazen, the well-known astronomer,
who had made his mark by a series of splendid researches with the
spectroscope into the constitution of the sun and other celestial
It was a fine clear night. The sky was cloudless and of a deep
dark blue, which revealed the highest heavens and the silvery
lustre of the Milky Way. The great belt of Orion shone
conspicuously in the east, and Sirius blazed a living gem more to
the south. I looked for Mars, and soon found him farther to the
north, a large red star, amongst the white of the encircling
Professor Gazen was quite alone in his observatory when I
arrived, and busily engaged in writing or computing at his
"I hope I'm not disturbing you," said I, as we shook hands; "I
know that you astronomers must work when the fine night
"Don't mention it," he replied cordially; "I'm observing one of
the nebulas just now, but it won't be in sight for a long time
"What about this mysterious light on Mars. Have you seen
anything of it?"
"I have not," said he, "though I did look the other night."
"You believe that something of the kind has been seen?"
"Oh, certainly. The Nice Observatory, of which Monsieur Perrotin
is director, has one of the finest telescopes in existence, and
Monsieur Javelle is well-known for his careful work."
"How do you account for it?"
"The light is not outside the disc," responded Gazen, "else I
should ascribe it to a small comet. It may be due to an aurora in
Mars as a writer in Nature has suggested, or to a range of snowy
Alps, or even to a bright cloud, reflecting the sunrise. Possibly
the Martians have seen the forest fires in America, and started a
"What strikes you as the likeliest of these notions?"
"Mountain peaks catching the sunshine."
"Might it not be the glare of a city, or a powerful
search-light—in short, a signal?"
"Oh dear, no," exclaimed the astronomer, smiling incredulously.
"The idea of signalling has got into people's heads through the
outcry raised about it some time ago, when Mars was in 'opposition'
and near the earth. I suppose you are thinking of the plan for
raising and lowering the lights of London to attract the notice of
"No; I believe I told you of the singular experience I had some
five or six years ago with an old astronomer, who thought he had
established an optical telegraph to Mars?"
"Oh, yes, I remember now. Ah, that poor old chap was insane.
Like the astronomer in Rasselas, he had brooded so long in solitude
over his visionary idea that he had come to imagine it a
"Might there not be some truth in his notion? Perhaps he was
only a little before his time."
Gazen shook his head.
"You see," he replied, "Mars is a much older planet than ours.
In winter the Arctic snows extend to within forty degrees of the
equator, and the climate must be very cold. If human beings ever
existed on it they must have died out long ago, or sunk to the
condition of the Eskimo."
"May not the climate be softened by conditions of land and sea
unknown to us? May not the science and civilisation of the Martians
enable them to cope with the low temperature?"
"The atmosphere of Mars is as rare as ours at a height of six
miles, and a warm-blooded creature like man would expire in
"Like man, yes," I answered; "but man was made for this world.
We are too apt to measure things by our own experience. Why should
we limit the potentiality of life by what we know of this
"In the next place," went on Gazen, ignoring my remark, "the old
astronomer's plan of signalling by strong lights was quite
impracticable. No artificial light is capable of reaching to Mars.
Think of the immense distance and the two atmospheres to penetrate!
The man was mad, as mad as a March hare! though why a March hare is
mad I'm sure I don't know."
"I read the other day of an electric light in America which can
be seen 150 miles through the lower atmosphere. Such a light, if
properly directed, might be visible on Mars; and, for aught we
know, the Martians may have discovered a still stronger beam."
"And if they have, the odds against their signalling just when
we are alive to the possibility of it are simply tremendous."
"I see nothing incredible in the coincidence. Two heads often
conceive the same idea about the same time, and why not two
planets, if the hour be ripe? Surely there is one and the same
inspiring Soul in all the universe. Besides, they may have been
signalling for centuries, off and on, without our knowing it."
"Then, again," said Gazen, with a pawky twinkle in his eye, "our
electric light may have woke them up."
"Perhaps they are signalling now," said I, "while we are wasting
precious time. I wish you would look."
"Yes, if you like; but I don't think you'll see any 'luminous
projections,' human or otherwise."
"I shall see the face of Mars, anyhow, and that will be a rare
experience. It seems to me that a view of the heavenly bodies
through a fine telescope, as well as a tour round the world, should
form a part of a liberal education. How many run to and fro upon
the earth, hunting for sights at great trouble and expense, but how
few even think of that sublimer scenery of the sky which can be
seen without stirring far from home! A peep at some distant orb has
power to raise and purify our thoughts like a strain of sacred
music, or a noble picture, or a passage from the grander poets. It
always does one good."
Professor Gazen silently turned the great refracting telescope
in the direction of Mars, and peered attentively through its mighty
tube for several minutes.
"Is there any light?" I inquired.
"None," he replied, shaking his head. "Look for yourself."
I took his place at the eye-piece, and was almost startled to
find the little coppery star, which I had seen half-an-hour before,
apparently quite near, and transformed into a large globe. It
resembled a gibbous moon, for a considerable part of its disc was
illuminated by the sun.
A dazzling spot marked one of its poles, and the rest of its
visible surface was mottled with ruddy and greenish tints which
faded into white at the rim. Fascinated by the spectacle of that
living world, seen at a glance, and pursuing its appointed course
through the illimitable ether, I forgot my quest, and a religious
awe came over me akin to that felt under the dome of a vast
"Well, what do you make of it?"
The voice recalled me to myself, and I began to scrutinise the
dim and shadowy border of the terminator for the feeblest ray of
light, but all in vain.
"I can't see any 'luminous projection'; but what a magnificent
object in the telescope!"
"It is indeed," rejoined the professor, "and though we have not
many opportunities of seeing it, we know it better than the other
planets, and almost as well as the moon. Its features have been
carefully mapped like those of the moon, and christened after
"Yourself included, I hope."
"No, sir; I have not that honour. It is true that a man I know,
an enthusiastic amateur in astronomy, dubbed a lot of holes and
corners in the moon after his private friends and acquaintances,
myself amongst them: 'Snook's Crater,' 'Smith's Bottom,' 'Tiddler's
Cove,' and so on; but I regret to say the authorities declined to
sanction his nomenclature."
"I presume that bright spot on the Southern limb is one of the
polar ice-caps," said I, still keeping my eye on the planet.
"Yes," replied the professor, "and they are seen to wax and wane
in winter and summer. The reddish-yellow tracts are doubtless
continents of an ochrey soil; and not, as some think, of a ruddy
vegetation. The greenish-grey patches are probably seas and lakes.
The land and water are better mixed on Mars than on the earth—a
fact which tends to equalise the climate. There is a belt of
continents round the equator: 'Copernicus,' 'Galileo,' 'Dawes,' and
others, having long winding lakes and inlets. These are separated
by narrow seas from other islands on the north or south, such as:
'Haze Land, 'Storm Land,' and so forth, which occupy what we should
call the temperate zones, beneath the poles; but I suspect they are
frigid enough. If you look closely you will see some narrow streaks
crossing the continents like fractures. These are the famous
'Canals' of Schiaparelli, who discovered (and I wish I had his
eyes) that many of them were 'doubled,' that is, had another canal
alongside. Some of these are nearly 2,000 miles long, by fifty
miles broad, and 300 miles apart."
"That beats the Suez Canal."
"I am afraid they are not artificial. The doubling is chiefly
observed at the vernal equinox, our month of May, and is perhaps
due to spring floods, or vegetation in valleys of the like trend,
as we find in Siberia. The massing of clouds or mists will account
for the peculiar whiteness at the edge of the limb, and an
occasional veiling of the landscape."
While he spoke, my attention was suddenly arrested by a vivid
point of light which appeared on the dark side of the terminator,
and south of the equator.
"Hallo!" I exclaimed, involuntarily. "There's a light!"
"Really!" responded Gazen, in a tone of surprise, not unmingled
with doubt. "Are you sure?"
"Quite. There is a distinct light on one of the continents."
"Let me see it, will you?" he rejoined, hastily; and I yielded
up my place to him.
"Why, so there is," he declared, after a pause. "I suspect it
has been hidden under a cloud till now."
We turned and looked at each other in silence.
"It can't be the light Javelle saw," ejaculated Gazen at length.
"That was on Hellas Land."
"Should the Martians be signalling they would probably use a
system of lights. I daresay they possess an electric telegraph to
The professor put his eye to the glass again, and I awaited the
result of his observation with eager interest.
"It's as steady as possible," said he.
"The steadiness puzzles me," I replied. "If it would only flash
I should call it a signal."
"Not necessarily to us," said Gazen, with mock gravity. "You
see, it might be a lighthouse flashing on the Kaiser Sea, or a
night message in the autumn manoeuvres of the Martians, who are, no
doubt, very warlike; or even the advertisement of a new soap."
"Seriously, what do you think of it?" I asked.
"I confess it's a mystery to me," he answered, pondering deeply;
and then, as if struck by a sudden thought, he added: "I wonder if
it's any good trying the spectroscope on it?"
So saying, he attached to the telescope a magnificent
spectroscope, which he employed in his researches on the nebula,
and renewed his observation.
"Well, that's the most remarkable thing in all my professional
experience," he exclaimed, resigning his place at the instrument to
"What is?" I demanded, looking into the spectroscope, where I
could distinguish several faint streaks of coloured light on a
"You know that we can tell the nature of a substance that is
burning by splitting up the light which comes from it in the prism
of a spectroscope. Well, these bright lines of different colours
are the spectrum of a luminous gas."
"Indeed! Have you any idea as to the origin of the blaze?"
"It may be electrical—for instance, an aurora. It may be a
volcanic eruption, or a lake of fire such as the crater of Kilauea.
Really, I can't say. Let me see if I can identify the bright lines
of the spectrum."
I yielded the spectroscope to him, and scarcely had he looked
into it ere he cried out—
"By all that's wonderful, the spectrum has changed. Eureka! It's
thallium now. I should know that splendid green line amongst a
"Thallium!" I exclaimed, astonished in my turn.
"Yes," responded Gazen, hurriedly. "Make a note of the
observation, and also of the time. You will find a book for the
purpose lying on the desk."
I did as directed, and awaited further orders. The silence was
so great that I could plainly hear the ticking of my watch laid on
the desk before me. At the end of several minutes the professor
"It has changed again: make another note."
"What is it now?"
"Sodium. The yellow bands are unmistakable."
A deep stillness reigned as before.
"There she goes again," exclaimed the professor, much excited.
"Now I can see a couple of blue lines. What can that be? I believe
Another long pause ensued.
"Now they are gone," ejaculated Gazen once more. "A red and a
yellow line have taken their place. That should be lithium. Hey,
presto!—and all was dark."
"What's the matter?"
"It's all over." With these words he removed the spectroscope
from the telescope, and gazed anxiously at the planet "The light is
gone," he continued, after a minute. "Perhaps another cloud is
passing over it. Well, we must wait. In the meantime let us
consider the situation. It seems to me that we have every reason to
be satisfied with our night's work. What do you think?"
There was a glow of triumph on his countenance as he came and
stood before me.
"I believe it's a signal," said I, with an air of
"Why should it change so regularly? I've timed each spectrum,
and found it to last about five minutes before another took its
The professor remained thoughtful and silent.
"Is it not by the light which comes from them that we have
gained all our knowledge of the constitution of the heavenly
bodies?" I continued. "A ray from the remotest star brings in its
heart a secret message to him who can read it. Now, the Martians
would naturally resort to the same medium of communication as the
most obvious, simple, and practicable. By producing a powerful
light they might hope to attract our attention, and by imbuing it
with characteristic spectra, easily recognised and changed at
intervals, they would distinguish the light from every other, and
show us that it must have had an intelligent origin."
"We should know that the Martians had a civilisation at least as
high as our own. To my mind, that would be a great discovery—the
greatest since the world began."
"But of little use to either party."
"As for that, a good many of our discoveries, especially in
astronomy, are not of much use. Suppose you find out the chemical
composition of the nebula you are studying, will that lower the
price of bread? No; but it will interest and enlighten us. If the
Martians can tell us what Mars is made of, and we can return the
compliment as regards the earth, that will be a service."
"But the correspondence must then cease, as the editors
"I'm not so sure of that."
"My dear fellow! How on earth are we to understand what the
Martians say, and how on Mars are they to understand what we say?
We have no common code."
"True; but the chemical bodies have certain well-defined
properties, have they not?"
"Yes. Each has a peculiarity marking it from all the rest. For
example, two or more may resemble each other in colour or hardness,
but not in weight."
"Precisely. Now, by comparing their spectra can we not be led to
distinguish a particular quality, and grasp the idea of it? In
short, can the Martians not impress that idea on us by their
"I see what you mean," said Professor Gazen; "and, now I think
of it, all the spectra we have seen belong to the group called
'metals of the alkalies and alkaline earths,' which, of course,
have distinctive properties."
"At first, I should think the Martians would only try to attract
our notice by striking spectra."
"Lithium is the lightest metal known to us."
"Well, we might get the idea of 'lightness' from that."
"Sodium," continued the professor, "sodium is a very soft metal,
with so strong an affinity for oxygen that it burns in water.
Manganese, which belongs to the 'iron group,' is hard enough to
scratch glass; and, like iron, is decidedly magnetic. Copper is
"The signals for colour we might get from the spectra
"Mercury or quicksilver is fluid at ordinary temperatures, and
that might lead us to the idea of movement—animation—life
"Having got certain fundamental ideas," I went on, "by combining
these we might arrive at other distinct conceptions. We might build
up an ideographic or glyphic language of signs—the signs being
spectra. The numerals might be telegraphed by simple occultations
of the light. Then from spectra we might pass by an easy step to
equivalent signals of long and short flashes in various
combinations, also made by occulting the light. With such a code,
our correspondence might go on at great length, and present no
difficulty; but, of course, we must be able to reply."
"If the Martians are as clever as you are pleased to imagine, we
ought to learn a good deal from them."
"I hope we may, and I'm sure the world will be all the better
for a little superior enlightenment on some points."
"Well, we must follow the matter up, at all events," said the
professor, taking another peep through the telescope. "For the
present the Martian philosophers appear to have shut up shop; and,
as my nebula has now risen, I should like to do a little work on it
before daybreak. Look here, if it's a fine night, can you join me
to-morrow? We shall then continue our observations; but, in the
meanwhile, you had better say nothing about them."
On my way home I looked for the ruddy planet as I had done in
the earlier part of the night, but with very different feelings in
my heart. The ice of distance and isolation separating me from it
seemed to have broken down since then, and instead of a cold and
alien star, I saw a friendly and familiar world—a companion to our
own in the eternal solitude of the universe.