Schiaparelli, Giovanni Virgilio

   Born at Savigliano in Lombardy, Schiaparelli was an eminent pioneer of astronomy who directed the Brera observatory in Milan from 1862. Learned in Arabic and Sanskrit (which gave him access to those civilizations’studies on the stars), he discovered an asteroid, 69 Hesperia, in April 1861, and geological features on the moon and Mercury are named after him.
   Schiaparelli’s lasting fame, however, derives from a mistaken observation and the mistaken translation into English of his description of this observation. In 1893, he published two papers on the subject of “life on Mars” in which he spoke of having identified canali on the planet’s surface that were probably the “main means” by which water (and with it organic life) was diffused. The word canali was translated into English as “canals” instead of the correct “channels” or “grooves,” and as a result many people sprang to the conclusion that there must be intelligent life on Mars. Schiaparelli’s observations were subsequently shown to be optical illusions, but by then early science fiction writers had done their worst, and the notion of little green men was fixed in the popular imagination.
   The Mars error should not detract from Schiaparelli’s importance in the history of astronomy. Schiaparelli was awarded the Bruce medal in 1902, which has since become the highest honor for astronomy, and was awarded the gold medal of the British Royal Academy. He died in Milan in July 1910.

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

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