Strange Skies opens in Flagstaff, Arizona where Dr Peter Boyce discusses the canals of Mars. This was the place where, back in 1894, the Lowell Observatory was established to examine whether the astonishing claim made a few years earlier by Giovanni Schiaparelli (that the surface of Mars was rife with canals) could be true. Percival Lowell was convinced not only that canals existed, but they were made by the Martians in order to channel water from their ice caps. His theories sparked a wave of Martian frenzy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which the programme compactly summarises.
Although Strange Skies gives Dr Boyce time to expound his theory that Lowell did observe something on the surface of Mars, even if it wasn’t exactly canals, Arthur’s on hand to pour cold water over these claims a few minutes later. Given that the canal theory was dismissed some considerable time ago (indeed, long before this programme was made) it’s slightly surprising that this edition opened with a straight-faced statement that there might still be something in it. But although it’s long been disproved it’s still an interesting story – further reading can be found here.
The apparent disappearance of the planet Vulcan (said to have existed between Mercury and the Sun) doesn’t seem to be very well known today. This is probably because no such planet ever existed, but it’s another fascinating tale. Urbain Le Verrier was a French mathematician who had discovered Neptune, so when he believed that he’d discovered another planet – Vulcan – it was no surprise he was taken seriously. Others had also observed it, but then to seemed to disappear. Most doubt it was ever there in the first place, but there’s still a few scientists who do believe in it. This webpage has plenty of information on the subject.
Later, Strange Skies tackles a weighty topic – what was the Star of Bethlehem? Was it a comet, or possibly a nova? Another theory is that it was a conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn. Dr David Hughes is seen working on a computer program which mapped the constellation at the time the Star was observed. No doubt the computer was cutting edge at the time, although it looks rather primitive now (its total processing power could probably fit comfortably in the most basic mobile phone). For those who believe the Star was a natural phenomenon this programme lays out some possible theories and this lengthy article is worth reading if you want to investigate further.
Although nothing is discussed in too much detail, Strange Skies still manages to provide some decent food for thought and is an entertaining twenty five minutes.