Percival Lowell

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Percival Lowell : biography

March 13, 1855 – November 12, 1916

Pluto

Lowell’s greatest contribution to planetary studies came during the last decade of his life, which he devoted to the search for Planet X, a hypothetical planet beyond Neptune. Lowell believed that the planets Uranus and Neptune were displaced from their predicted positions by the gravity of the unseen Planet X. Lowell started a search program in 1906 using a camera in aperture. The small field of view of the reflecting telescope rendered the instrument impractical for searching. From 1914 to 1916, a telescope on loan from Sproul Observatory was used to search for Planet X. Although Lowell did not discover Pluto, Lowell Observatory (690) did photograph Pluto in March and April 1915.

In 1930 Clyde Tombaugh, working at the Lowell Observatory, discovered Pluto near the location expected for Planet X. Partly in recognition of Lowell’s efforts, a stylized P-L monogram (

Although Lowell’s theories of the Martian canals, of surface features on Venus, and of Planet X are now discredited, his practice of building observatories at the position where they would best function has been adopted as a principle. He also established the program and setting which made the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh possible. Craters on the Moon and on Mars have been named after him. Lowell has been described by other planetary scientists as "the most influential popularizer of planetary science in America before Carl Sagan".

While eventually disproved, Lowell’s vision of the Martian canals as an artifact of an ancient civilization making a desperate last effort to survive, significantly influences the development of science fiction – starting with H.G. Wells’ influential The War of the Worlds, which made the further logical inference that creatures from a dying planet might seek to invade Earth.

The image of the dying Mars and its ancient culture was retained, in numerous versions and variations, in most SF works depicting Mars in the first half of the twentieth century (see Mars in fiction). Even when proven to be factually mistaken, the vision of Mars derived from his theories remains enshrined in works that remain in print and widely read as classics of science fiction.

Lowell’s influence on science fiction remains strong. The canals figure prominently in Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein (1949) and The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950).

Biography

Percival Lowell was a scion of the Boston, Massachusetts Lowell family. Lowell was born in Cambridge. Lowell is the brother of Abbott Lawrence Lowell and Amy Lowell.

Percival graduated from the Noble and Greenough School in 1872 and Harvard University in 1876 with distinction in mathematics. At his college graduation, he gave a speech, considered very advanced for its time, on the "Nebular Hypothesis." He was later awarded honorary degrees from Amherst College and Clark University. After graduation he ran a cotton mill for six years.

In the 1880s, Lowell traveled extensively in the Far East. In August 1883, he served as a foreign secretary and counsellor for a special Korean diplomatic mission to the United States. He lived there for about two months. He also spent significant periods of time in Japan, writing books on Japanese religion, psychology, and behavior. His texts are filled with observations and academic discussions of various aspects of Japanese life, including language, religious practices, economics, travel in Japan, and the development of personality. Books by Percival Lowell on the Orient include Chosön: The Land of the Morning Calm (1886, Boston), Noto: An Unexplored Corner of Japan (1891) and Occult Japan, or the Way of the Gods (1894); the latter from his third and final trip to the region. The most popular of Lowell’s books on the Orient, The Soul of the Far East, (1888) contains an early synthesis of some of his ideas, that in essence, postulated that human progress is a function of the qualities of individuality and imagination. His time in Korea inspired Chosön: The Land of the Morning Calm.

He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1892. He moved back to the United States in 1893. Beginning in the winter of 1893-94, using his wealth and influence, Lowell dedicated himself to the study of astronomy, founding the observatory which bears his name. For the last 23 years of his life astronomy, Lowell Observatory, and his and others’ work at his observatory were the focal points of his life. He lived to be 61 years of age.

World War I very much saddened Lowell, a dedicated pacifist. This, along with some setbacks in his astronomical work (described below), undermined his health and contributed to his death from a stroke on November 12, 1916.Croswell, Kenneth, Planet Quest: The Epic Discovery of Alien Solar Systems (1997), pg. 49

On his religious views, Lowell was an agnostic.

Another of his books is The Eve of the French Revolution (1892). Lowell is buried on Mars Hill near his observatory.

Publication

  • Percival Lowell – Collected Writings on Japan and Asia, including Letters to Amy Lowell and Lafcadio Hearn, 5 vols., Tokyo: Edition Synapse. ISBN 978-4-901481-48-9 www.aplink.co.jp/synapse/4-901481-48-7.htm

Notes