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The Time We Found Pyramids on Mars

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Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars has long fascinated people. One of the few objects in the night sky to show a visible color and the only one that wandered, it was a natural draw. As astronomy blossomed and scientists realized that it was another world, visionaries began to speculate about life there.

The first good telescopic observations revealed a world with definite features, areas of light and dark which could be continents and oceans. In 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli took advantage of a particularly favorable opposition (when Mars and Earth are on the same side of the Sun, and Mars appears high in the night sky) and drew a map of the planet. In keeping with the belief that the dark regions were oceans, when he saw dark lines across the lighter areas, he dubbed them "canali," Italian for "channels."

Map of Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli

Note that although the "rivers" or "canals" are not real, he did see many things that are real -- the Hellas basin is a gigantic impact crater, and the "lake" that he depicts in "Thaumasia felix" is actually the caldera of Olympus Mons.

American astronomer Percival Lowell believed that Schiaparelli had discovered artificial canals. Lowell became a major early proponent for the idea of a complex civilization on Mars. He persisted even when later observers failed to find the canals, demonstrated the likelihood of them being an optical illusion, and even when spectrographic data revealed that Mars was not really a very hospitable place -- cold, dry, and with an atmosphere too thin to maintain liquid water. The idea persisted occasionally in science fiction until 1965, when Mariner 4 flew by Mars.

In its brief flyby, it revealed a Mars that appeared as dead and hostile as the Moon -- barren and pocked with craters. Furthermore, the canals were clearly not present.

Map of Martian Canals by Percival Lowell

Mariner 4 image of Mars, showing moon-like craters

The idea of life on Mars fell largely out of favor as a result of this, but interest in Mars remained. Though the canals were obviously not real, speculation turned from present Martians to Martians past. If there was no civilization now, was it possible there had been in the past? After Mariner 4, Mariners 6 and 7 also flew by, largely confirming the lifeless image. But then that all changed.

Mariner 9 arrived in Mars orbit on November 14, 1971. It was followed within a month by the Soviet probes Mars 2 and Mars 3. On arrival, the probes discovered a Mars transformed: a vast dust storm completely masked the planet. Eventually, the dust settled, revealing a world of wonders previously unseen: staggeringly huge extinct volcanoes, a tremendous canyon system named for the probe (Valles Marineris), dry riverbeds, fog, clouds . . . and something else. On February 8, 1972, Mariner 9 returned an image of what looked an awful lot like pyramids in a region called Elysium Planitia:

Mariner 9 image of Elysium Planitia, showing pyramid-shaped structures

Could it be? Had there really been intelligent life on Mars, which had built pyramids eerily similar to the Egyptian pyramids at Giza? Some other vaguely artificial-looking objects were also observed, and piqued a bit of interest, but none more than the pyramids. That was nothing compared to what would come in 1976, though.

In 1976, two "flagship class" probes arrived at Mars: Viking 1 and Viking 2. Each was an orbiter/lander pair. Their orbiters surveyed the planet in much more detail than Mariner 9 had been able to achieve. In addition to obtaining better resolution images of the pyramids at Elysium Planitia, they also found some more in a region called Cydonia Mensae. As exciting as the first pyramid discovery had been, this really took off in the public imagination, for in addition to what seemed like a complex of pyramids, there was a gigantic face.

The "Face on Mars," photographed by Viking 1; note that the black spots are data loss, not real objects

A consultant at Goddard Space Flight Center happened to see the images and found his fame in them. His name was Richard Hoagland, and he was to become the most ardent proponent of the Face on Mars. He described the pyramids as a buried city, and the Face as a crumbling monument akin to the Sphinx in Egypt.

There was no new data on these features for some time. No new missions were greenlit until Mars Observer, which ended in disaster when the probe suddenly ceased transmitting shortly before orbital insertion. It wasn't until September 12, 1997, that a new spacecraft arrived at Mars: Mars Global Surveyor. It eventually imaged both Elysium and Cydonia, and the results were disappointing for anyone hoping to find evidence of life, although many refused to give up the faith. Mars Odyssey 2001, Mars Express, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have mapped the planet in ever increasing detail, and the features have proven to be disappointingly natural.

Elysium pyramid, photographed by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

It does look like a pyramid, doesn't it? But then, so does this:

Even if there aren't really alien-built structures on its surface, Mars still conceals a lot of mysteries. It boasts the largest volcanoes in the solar system by a huge margin, and also the largest canyon. It is smaller than Earth, but has the same land surface area as Earth's continents. It has weather, including dust devils and gigantic dust storms. It has ice caps made of a mixture of water ice and frozen carbon dioxide, and water not only flowed in the past, but appears to be sometimes able to flow in the present as well. And who knows? Perhaps by the end of the century, some of us will be living there. And then we can build our own pyramids!

Note: Some of you may have seen the Doctor Who serial "Pyramids of Mars," featuring Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen as they combat animated mummies and a vengeful Egyptian god. The serial ended with a final battle under the pyramids of Mars. More on that episode and other Doctor Who stories ripped from the headlines here.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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