Percival Lowell

Percival Lowell bigraphy, stories - American astronomer

Percival Lowell : biography

March 13, 1855 – November 12, 1916

Percival Lawrence Lowell (March 13, 1855 – November 12, 1916) was an American businessman, author, mathematician, and astronomer who fueled speculation that there were canals on Mars, founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and formed the beginning of the effort that led to the discovery of Pluto fourteen years after his death. The choice of the name Pluto and its symbol were partly influenced by his initials PL.

Astronomy career

Lowell became determined to study Mars and astronomy as a full-time career after reading Camille Flammarion’s La planète Mars. He was particularly interested in the canals of Mars, as drawn by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who was director of the Milan Observatory.

In 1894 Lowell chose Flagstaff, Arizona Territory as the home of his new observatory. At an altitude of over 2100 meters (7000 feet), with few cloudy nights, and far from city lights, Flagstaff was an excellent site for astronomical observations. This marked the first time an observatory had been deliberately located in a remote, elevated place for optimal seeing.Littman, Mark, Planets Beyond: Discovering the Outer Solar System (1990), pg. 62

Canals of Mars

For the next fifteen years he studied Mars extensively, and made intricate drawings of the surface markings as he perceived them. Lowell published his views in three books: Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908). With these writings, Lowell more than anyone else popularized the long-held belief that these markings showed that Mars sustained intelligent life forms.Kidger, Mark, Astronomical Enigmas: Life on Mars, the Star of Bethlehem, and Other Milky Way Mysteries (2005), pg. 110

His works include a detailed description of what he termed the ‘non-natural features’ of the planet’s surface, including especially a full account of the ‘canals,’ single and double; the ‘oases,’ as he termed the dark spots at their intersections; and the varying visibility of both, depending partly on the Martian seasons. He theorized that an advanced but desperate culture had built the canals to tap Mars’ polar ice caps, the last source of water on an inexorably drying planet.Guthke, Karl S. (1990). The Last Frontier: Imagining Other Worlds from the Copernican Revolution to Modern Fiction. Translated by Helen Atkins. Cornell University Press. pp. 355-6. ISBN 0-8014-1680-9.

While this idea excited the public, the astronomical community was skeptical. Many astronomers could not see these markings, and few believed that they were as extensive as Lowell claimed. As a result, Lowell and his observatory were largely ostracized.Croswell, pg. 48 Although the consensus was that some actual features did exist which would account for these markings,Kidger; pg. 111 in 1909 the sixty-inch Mount Wilson Observatory telescope in Southern California allowed closer observation of the structures Lowell had interpreted as canals, and revealed irregular geological features, probably the result of natural erosion.Guthke, Karl S. (1990). The Last Frontier: Imagining Other Worlds from the Copernican Revolution to Modern Fiction. Translated by Helen Atkins. Cornell University Press. pp. 356. ISBN 0-8014-1680-9.

The existence of canal-like features were definitively disproved in the 1960s with NASA Mariner missions. Mariner 4, 6, 7, and the Mariner 9 orbiter (1972) did not capture images of canals but instead showed an ancient cratered Martian surface. Today, the surface markings taken to be canals are regarded as an optical illusion.

Venus spokes

Although Lowell was better known for his observations of Mars, he also drew maps of the planet Venus. He began observing Venus in detail in the summer of 1896 soon after the 61-centimeter (24-inch) Alvan Clark & Sons refracting telescope was installed at his new Flagstaff, Arizona observatory. Lowell observed the planet high in the daytime sky with the telescope’s lens stopped down to 3 inches in diameter to reduce the effect of the turbulent daytime atmosphere. Lowell observed spoke-like surface features including a central dark spot, contrary to what was suspected then (and known now): that Venus has no surface features, being covered in an atmosphere that is opaque. It has been noted in a 2003 Journal for the History of Astronomy paper and in an article published in Sky and Telescope in July 2003 that Lowell’s stopping down of the telescope created such a small exit pupil at the eyepiece, it may have become a giant ophthalmoscope giving Lowell an image of the shadows of blood vessels cast on the retina of his eye.Sheehan, W. & Dobbins, T., The spokes of Venus: an illusion explained, Journal for the History of Astronomy (ISSN 0021-8286), Vol. 34, Part 1, No. 114, p. 53 – 63 (2003)