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Museums and collections


Josh Nall, Assistant Curator
Whipple Museum of the History of Science

What are we looking at? Without the visual clue of the familiar red orbs sitting beside it, it would be hard to pick out Ingeborg Brun’s hand-painted sphere as a globe of the planet Mars. I certainly had no idea what this amazing object was when I first encountered it. A strange ruddy pink, and inscribed with an intricate spider’s web of fine, straight lines, the globe is as alien to us as it is beautiful. We think of Mars as a barren dustbowl, yet here, in an object only a century old, is a world quite unlike what we see today through the eyes of NASA’s Curiosity rover. Where we see a near-featureless expanse, Ingeborg Brun saw a vibrant living world, crisscrossed with dense green vegetation and peopled by an industrious race of busy engineers.

It is this incredible story of an inhabited Mars that first drew me to Brun’s globe. My attempt to understand and explain its enigmatic lines sent me deep into a story almost too implausible to believe, yet too serious to dismiss. Brun, a bedridden artist from a remote town in Denmark, painted her globes and sent them to institutions around the world. Yet the lines on them are not her own. She based her globes on the 1905 map by the famous American astronomer Percival Lowell, a celebrity in his day for his sensational claim that he could see evidence of intelligent life on Mars. The lines, Lowell explained, are canals, manufactured in an immense network by purposeful Martians desperately seeking to irrigate their arid planet. Whether his contemporaries thought this idea fanciful or electrifying, it was certainly hard to ignore, and the debate over evidence for life on Mars raged on well into the twentieth century, taking in a vibrant world of astronomers, journalists, artists, and an always curious public.

One of the great pleasures of being a historian is that I get to live part of my life in this different and peculiar world. By looking at objects and reading sources I get to explore its terrain and report on its intriguing peoples and their curious customs and beliefs. Brun’s globe was my entrée into this new world, and so I remain inordinately fond of it. I started with the object and I ended up with a head full of stories and ideas—about Martians and their massive irrigation canals, and about the people, like Brun, who saw them there on Mars.