Primary Sources in the Science Classroom: Signals from Mars? Venus?

This post is by Rebecca Newland, the 2013-2015 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

“Marconi’s idea of communicating with the other planets is the greatest and most fascinating problem confronting the human imagination today.” – Nikola Tesla

Detail from The Tomahawk, March 18, 1920

Detail from The Tomahawk,
March 18, 1920

Tesla, Guglielmo Marconi, and Thomas Edison were among the respected scientists who believed one of our neighbors was trying to contact us. A news article “Hello, Earth! Hello!” published on March 18, 1920, details the history of signals, possibly electromagnetic, picked up by Marconi and verified by scientists around the world, including Edison and Tesla. All three agreed the signals were deliberately sent from another planet.  Based on the information they had, this was a realistic inference.

Today we know Marconi, Tesla, and Edison were not correct; sentient beings from another planet were not trying to contact us. But what did those scientists hear? What tools did they use to make these observations and form hypotheses? Read the article to find the answers to some of these questions.

Investigate further with students to answer:

  • What do we know that Marconi, Tesla, and Edison did not?
  • What scientific instrumentation do we have that they did not?
  • If the same signals were observed today, what would explain them?
Article from The Washington Times Jan 20, 1920

Article from The Washington Times
Jan 20, 1920

Do a close reading of the entire article either with students in small groups or individually. Ask them to record the hypotheses put forward in the article and the evidence used to support each. As a class, consider each hypothesis and whether current scientific knowledge proves or disproves it.

To deepen the conversation, focus students on the claim in this 1920 article that the signals originated on Venus. Ask students to read and record the evidence that supports the argument for signals from Venus. Discuss whether or not this hypothesis is valid based on the evidence. Again explore what we know now that would disprove the hypothesis.

Conclude this activity by asking:

  • Are there any questions posed in either article that we cannot answer today?
  • What would we need to know in order to discover the answers?

Primary sources available from the Library of Congress can help students explore the history of science, the history of innovation, and the scientific practices of communication innovators such as Samuel Morse, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell.

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