Sanjida O'Connell: a little black humour about red planet

June 16, 2006


Cartoon Museum, 35 Little Russell Street, London. Until July 1

The oldest cartoon is the one that best epitomises our relationship with the planets. It was drawn in 1793 by William Blake and it opens Mars in their Eyes , the exhibition curated by Colin Pillinger, professor of planetary sciences at the Open University and leader of the team behind Beagle 2 . It shows a man resting a long ladder against the sickle curve of the moon and beginning to climb. The caption reads: "I want! I want!"

Scientists and science journalists have long struggled to communicate complex ideas simply without losing their essence. What is striking about the exhibition is how uniquely well cartoons can transfer such information. The cartoonists have to know a fair amount about Mars and Beagle 2 for their barbed drawings to hit home. For instance, in a cartoon by Mike Smith two Martians contemplate the Earth one day in 2003 when the two planets are at their closest for 60,000 years. The aliens, observing the fug of war, violence and terrorism emanating from their blue-green neighbour 55.6 million km away decide they are quite close enough to us.

The combination of knowledgeable cartoonists and Pillinger's bite-size nuggets of information alongside each image make the science more digestible than it might be in other forms. We learn that those "canals" on Mars were actually a mistranslation of Giovanni Schiaparelli's " canali ", meaning channels, but were, nevertheless, an optical illusion. But when the American Opportunity rover found samples rich in chlorine and bromine on the Red Planet, leading scientists speculated that this might indicate that large amounts of sea water had once been present. And where there was water there could have been or may yet be life.

Although cartoons encapsulate a message, they are chiefly meant to be funny, even if some, such as the individuals depicted, may end up wincing.

As Pillinger says, the exhibition is designed to "show that scientists are human too and enjoy a laugh as much as anybody, even if it is at their own expense". It is a brave man who not only shows cartoons of himself - portrayed both as a country bumpkin and a bullish dog, growling after bankers for money - but also those that wickedly make fun of Beagle 2, which failed to communicate with its anxious creators after it had been launched towards the Red Planet. It's thought to be lying in a crater of its own making called H2O. Beagle 2 stubbornly remains silent in spite of being sent the universal technical fault repair signal: "If you get this message, turn the computer off and then on again."

That scientists and science journalists have succeeded in bringing the science behind Mars to our attention is clearly shown in these cartoons, from the one where Martians think Damien Hirst's spot painting on the side of Beagle 2 is old hat to those where the Red Planet even made it into the sports pages in an unlikely image of Alan Shearer as a Martian. This is not only down to the efforts made by Pillinger and his predecessors to communicate with the general public and the exemplary skill of the cartoonists. It is because the planets have always had, as Blake realised, the power to capture our imaginations.

Sanjida O'Connell is author of Sugar: The Grass that Changed the World , Virgin Books, £8.99.

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