When Perseverance, the Mars rover, landed on the Red Planet on 18 February 2021, I found myself asking a familiar question: where are the Martian scientists?
I’m joking of course, but the idea of Martian scientists—Martian anthropologists, Martian linguists, Martian sociologists, Martian biologists, even Martian philosophers—has become a rhetorical staple. When a writer wants to invoke the perspective of the unbiased observer, a Martian is just around the corner. The trope scientist has been made famous by Noam Chomsky, who puts it this way in 1977 book Language and Responsibility:
Let’s consider this question of human uniqueness. Imagine a Martian scientist who studies human beings from the outside, without any prejudice.
The Martian scientist shows up again in Language and Problems of Knowledge, where he is given a name (John M.) and appears for several pages puzzling out the formation of questions in Spanish to show that our intuitive knowledge of things can get in the way of discovery. And in his political writing, Chomsky even has an essay called “The Journalist from Mars.”
Of course, Chomsky is not the only one to invoke Martians: Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Saul Kripke, Hilary Putnam, and others do it as well. Oliver Sacks even titled a 1995 book An Anthropologist on Mars, a reference to Temple Grandin, who described herself that way.
Before scholars and writers adopted the Martian so thoroughly, there was television’s “My Favorite Martian,” the 1960s comedy in which actor Ray Walston played a Martian anthropologist who crashes on earth and is discovered by a journalist. The journalist, played by Bill Bixby, takes him as his Uncle Martin to prevent a panic. The hundred or so episodes combined humor with outsider commentary on life and paved the way for many other quirky television extraterrestrials.
But the Martian trope goes much further back. Before Noam Chomsky, linguist Robert A. Hall writes this in his book 1950 Leave Your Language Alone!:
When we want to imagine how things would seem to somebody who could look at us in a wholly objective, scientific way, we often put our reasoning in terms of a “man from Mars” coming to observe the earth and its inhabitants, living among men and studying their existence dispassionately and in its entirety.
Eugene Nida’s 1941 book Morphology, stressing the need for objectivity explains, “It would be excellent if [the descriptive analyst] could adopt a completely man-from-Mars attitude toward any language he analyzes and describes,” and a 1936 book on The Future of Taboo opened with “Last summer a distinguished Martian anthropologist visited the British Isles and permitted the B.B.C. and its myriads of licensees to listen in to the impressions which he broadcast week by week to Mars.”
On it goes: a 1908 book refers to “a Martian sociologist, viewing mankind with impartial survey from China to Peru.” The Martian trope was already so widely recognized in the early twentieth century that we find references to “the proverbial Martian,” “the proverbial inhabitant from Mars,” “the proverbial visitor from Mars Society,” and more.
I haven’t yet found a first Martian visitor, but fascination with the Red Planet seems to have especially peaked after the discovery by Giovanni Schiaparelli of channels on Mars in 1877. Schiaparelli called them canali, which was (mis)translated into English as “canals” instead of “channels.” In 1894, American astronomer Percival Lowell, mapped hundreds of them and proposed that they were built by Martians.
Lowell published three books on Mars and influenced a burgeoning market for Martian fiction: H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds depicting a Martian invasion, Mary Ann Moore-Bentley’s A Woman of Mars, which presented Mars as a feminist utopia, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars, which gave us green-skinned Martians.
By the end of the first decade of the 1900s, newspapers were already joking about Martian scientists. A squib in the Philadelphia Ledger asked: “Can’t help but wonder if Martian Scientists are reporting to each other as to progress on the Panama Canal.”