Lowells Martians

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Into this atmosphere of great scientific receptivity to pluralism strode Percival Lowell, a brash, wealthy Bostonian on a mission. His scientifically informed fantasy of a Martian civilization would capture the world's imagination, temporarily advancing the pluralist cause but ultimately setting it back for most of the century.

Upon graduating with honors from Harvard in 1876, Lowell gave a commencement address on Laplace's nebular hypothesis. Before turning to astronomy full-time in his forties, he traveled repeatedly to Asia in pursuit of arcane knowledge of Eastern religion. From these journeys he gained a mystical belief in the unity of the cosmos that influenced his devout pluralism. "Each body," he concluded, "under the same laws, conditioned only by size and position, inevitably evolves upon itself organic forms."

Shortly after returning to Boston in 1893, Lowell learned of the telescopic observations of the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who, in 1877, had drawn maps of Mars with unprecedented detail, showing a network of straight lines that he called canals. Schiaparelli's canals sparked the imagination of Percival Lowell, who began to conceive a way of confirming his cosmic vision of abundant life and intelligence. It did not take him long to throw together a well-financed (with Lowell family money) expedition of Harvard astronomers to Arizona in search of an ideal high-altitude site to build a new observatory. He chose a forested hill at seven thousand feet on the outskirts of Flagstaff, where today the Lowell Observatory remains one of the premier American institutes of planetary research. Charismatic, and fabulously wealthy, Lowell had the means to build an observatory, but he lacked the patience and objectivity of a great observer. He arrived in Flagstaff to begin his observations in May 1894. Less than a year later he was already popularizing incredible discoveries and a radical new view of Mars.

Lowell confirmed the presence of a geometric pattern of Martian canals covering the entire globe. The dark areas, however, were not watery seas as Schiaparelli and others had concluded. Rather, he determined, they were deserts. He developed an elaborate interpretation of the current Martian condition, in which the canals had been built by a race of intelligent Martians vastly superior to humans in intellect and technical capabilities. Mars, once much like the Earth, had lost its oceans. The Martians, trying to preserve life on their dying world, had constructed the canals to carry spring melt from the polar caps to cultivated fields on the rest of the planet.

Lowell publicized this theory in a series of papers in scientific and popular journals, in a well-attended lecture tour, and in his book Mars, published in December 1895. Some critics noted the suspicious similar-

Image unavailable for electronic edition ity of Lowell's Martian observations to his pre-observational views of cosmic evolution. Indeed, on the eve of his departure for Flagstaff he had proclaimed to the Boston Scientific Society, "Investigation into the condition of life on other worlds, including last but not least, their hab-itability by beings like or unlike man . . . is not the chimerical search some may suppose. On the contrary, there is strong reason to believe we are on the eve of a pretty definite discovery in the matter." Other skeptics showed that a planetwide irrigation system fed by the tiny polar caps would not work.

But the public ate it up. Such was the power of Lowell's will and imagination, and the skill of his oratory, that he took the whole world with him on an elaborate, decades-long Martian fantasy ride. His books were best-sellers, and his sensational lectures were standing-room-only affairs, with frenzied throngs spilling onto the street. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Lowell's advanced, canal-building Martians were all the rage on Earth.

The scientific community was sharply divided over the issue. The furious disagreements, lasting for decades, mostly centered on the question of whether the canals were artificial or "natural." Most accepted that they existed. Numerous careful and renowned observers the world over also saw the canals.

At the time, that seemed like a powerful independent verification, but now it stands as a warning of the traps we can set for ourselves when we push science too far. When we overinterpret sketchy data at the limits of current abilities, the gaps in our data may be filled by our desires, by the power of suggestion, and by the undeniable force of consensus in forming opinions.

Finally, in the 1920s, the debate ebbed. Improved telescopes and photographic techniques showed that the question of interpretation was moot. The canals were not the invention of advanced Martians trying valiantly to save their planet from global change. They were created by a turbulent atmosphere, an active imagination, a charismatic individual, and a pervasive will to believe. They are simply not there.

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