Traveller, poet and misfit of Mars

Percival Lowell

September 21, 2001

Percival Lowell was indeed a colourful character. Even though he died more than 80 years ago, he is still vividly remembered - but, it must be said, mainly for the wrong reasons. Lowell was the astronomer who believed that Mars was inhabited by advanced beings who had constructed a planet-wide irrigation system using canals to convey water from the ice-covered poles through to the warmer areas near the equator. He set up a major observatory mainly to study Mars and produced drawings that, had they been accurate, would have shown without a doubt that Martians really did exist. But the drawings were not accurate, there are no canals, and there are no Martians.

Technically Lowell ranked as an amateur, and his preoccupation with Mars meant that he was ignored by many of the leading astronomers of the time. Yet he accomplished a great deal more than is generally realised and David Strauss, professor of history at Kalamazoo College in the United States, brings this out very well. Lowell was a traveller, a sociologist, a cosmologist and, briefly, a psychical researcher; less than half the book is devoted to his astronomical work.

Lowell came from a wealthy Boston family and could well have made a successful career in business, as his father wished, but he was an individualist and the business world did not appeal to him. From an early age he showed exceptional ability as a writer and speaker, and he was an enthusiastic traveller. He spent some time in Japan and other Far Eastern countries and became an expert in the social scenes there; his book Occult Japan became very influential. He was one of the first westerners to make more than a superficial visit to Korea, and in Japan he became very much part of the cultural life, even though rather surprisingly, he never became fluent in the language. He even climbed three active volcanoes, as well as Mount Fuji. As Strauss comments in the section of the book headed "Image maker", Lowell's work was part of a continuing effort to assess the American way of life by contrasting it with various foreign cultures. The Americans of the late 19th century did not understand the Japanese, and the converse was also true, so that Lowell was able to make useful contributions. He never lost his interest in the Far East, though most of his time there was spent when he was still young.

He dabbled in psychical research, but not very seriously; he wrote poetry, which was tolerably good; he wrote books on travel, which were very good indeed. In discussing these various aspects of Lowell's career, Strauss gives interesting comments about Japanese culture. Lowell also studied cosmology and wrote a book, The Evolution of Worlds , that contained some original ideas, even though most of the theories given have proved to be wrong.

Astronomy dominated the latter part of Lowell's life. During the 1890s he set up his private observatory at Flagstaff in Arizona, although not until he had made a careful investigation of the best potential sites. He engaged assistants, notably William Pickering and Vesto Slipher, and he provided a 24-inch refracting telescope that was one of the best of its kind in the world. (It still is, as I know from personal experience; during the pre- Apollo period I used it extensively during the lunar mapping project.) As a fully fledged, well-equipped observatory, Flagstaff was unique in being privately financed. This enabled Lowell to go his own way, but it had the disadvantage of divorcing him from the mainstream of astronomical research. Yet Mars was not the sole target of the observatory. For example, it was there that Slipher made vitally important observations of the objects now known to be external galaxies, and it was Slipher who provided the data that later allowed Edwin Hubble to prove that the entire universe is in a state of expansion.

There was also the hunt for Planet X. At that time Neptune was the outermost planet, but Lowell's mathematical work led him to believe that there must be another, and after working out its position he began an intensive search. It is ironic that the planet - Pluto - was actually photographed twice, but was overlooked because it was so much fainter than Lowell had expected. In 1930, long after Lowell's death, Pluto was identified by Clyde Tombaugh at Lowell's observatory. True, it has proved to be a very exceptional object, and Lowell's reasonably correct prediction may have been fortuitous, but it was certainly his perseverance that led to Pluto's discovery.

The failure to detect Planet X during Lowell's lifetime and the failure to demonstrate the existence of canals on Mars have often led to the suggestion that his life was a failure. This is emphatically not the case. Strauss shows that he made major contributions in many fields, and he was also a benefactor of science; today the Lowell Observatory is recognised as one of the main centres of astronomical research in America.

Strauss also gives us an insight into Lowell's personality. He could be abrasive and his opinions very fixed, but he was quick to make friends. Curiously, little is said about his marriage, late in life. It caused great trouble at the observatory after Lowell's death, since his widow launched a long series of financially crippling lawsuits. For a while the very existence of the observatory was threatened, though in the end a compromise was worked out. The book is not light reading, but historians in particular will find it of great value. It complements other accounts of Lowell's life and work and is a notable addition to the literature.

Sir Patrick Moore is the author of more than 60 books, mainly on astronomy.

Percival Lowell: The Culture and Science of a Boston Brahmin

Author - David Strauss
ISBN - 0 674 00291 1
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £32.95
Pages - 333

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