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Giovanni Schiaparelli

discoverer of the origins of meteors and of the "canals" on Mars

Giovanni Schiaparelli

Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli was born in Savigliano, Italy, on March 14, 1835. He graduated from Turin University in 1854, after which he studied astronomy in Berlin, Germany, under Johann F. Encke. In 1859 he was appointed assistant observer at Pulkovo Observatory in Russia, but left the following year for a similar position at Brera Observatory in Milan, Italy. He became director of the Observatory in 1862, and held that position until retiring in 1900.

The relatively small telescopes at Brera limited Schiaparelli's observations primarily to comets and meteors, although he was able to discover the asteroid Hesperia in 1861. In 1866 he was able to demonstrate that the Perseid meteors are remnants of Comet 1862 III and the Leonids of Comet 1866 I, and that other meteor swarms also related to comets. These discoveries, subsequently amplified in Le Stelle cadenti (1873) and Norme per le osservazioni dell'estelle cadenti dei bolidi (1896), gained for him the Lalande Prize of the Academy of Sciences, Paris, in 1868, and the Gold Medal and Foreign Associateship of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1872. They also resulted in Brera obtaining a larger telescope, which allowed Schiaparelli to shift his focus to the study of planets.

From his observations of Mercury and Venus, Schiaparelli concluded that those planets rotate on their axes at the same rate at which they revolve about the Sun, thus always keeping one side facing the Sun. This view was generally accepted until the late 1960's, when advanced radar techniques and space probes proved it incorrect.

In 1877 Schiaparelli published what has become perhaps his most famous work, a map of the surface features of Mars. With the additional features he filled in over the next decade, it became a standard reference in planetary cartography and was still in use until the dawn of the space probe era. In addition, the scheme he devised for naming major Martian features -- the use of Latin and Mediterranean place names taken from ancient history, mythology, and the Bible -- survives to this day. The map also included drawings of long, straight lines across the Martin surface that Schiaparelli called canali, and which he named after famous rivers, both fictional and real. Schiaparelli believed that Mars is a planet of seasonal change, with a temporary sea forming around the northern polar cap as it melts each spring, and that the sea's waters disperse over the Martian surface by means of the canali (much like mountain streams on Earth carry snow- and ice-melt downslope into ever larger streams which then become rivers). Although he believed the canali to be entirely natural in origin, he refused to completely rule out the possibility that at least some of them could have been constructed by intelligent life.

After retiring, Schiaparelli studied the astronomy of the ancient Hebrews and Babylonians and published L’astronomia nell’antico testamento (1903) and Astronomy in the Old Testament (1905). He died in Milan, Italy, on July 4, 1910.

An asteroid and a Martian crater are named in Schiaparelli's honor.


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This page was last updated on 12/17/2017.