Percival Lowell and the Canals of Mars

Late in the 19th century, the U.S. astronomer Percival Lowell established a private astronomical observatory (called the Lowell Observatory) near Flagstaff, Arizona, primarily to support his personal interest in Mars and his aggressive search for signs of an intelligent civilization there. Driving Lowell was his misinterpretation of Giovanni Schiaparelli's use of canali in an 1877 technical report in which the Italian astronomer discussed his telescopic observations of the Martian surface. Lowell took this report as early observational evidence of large, water-bearing canals built by intelligent beings. Lowell then wrote books, such as Mars and Its Canals (1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908) to communicate his Martian civilization theory to the public.

While his nonscientific (but popular) interpretation of observed surface features on Mars proved quite inaccurate, his astronomical instincts were correct for another part of the solar system. Based on perturbations in the orbit of Neptune, Lowell predicted in 1905 the existence of a planet-sized, trans-Neptunian object. In 1930, the U.S. astronomer Clyde Tombaugh (1906-97), working at the Lowell Observatory, discovered Lowell's Planet X and called the tiny planet Pluto. The story of distant Pluto came full circle in August 2006 when members of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) (meeting in Prague, the Czech Republic) voted to demote Pluto from its traditional status as one of the nine major planets and placed the celestial object into a new class called a dwarf planet.

Percival Lowell was born on March 13, 1855, in Boston, Massachusetts, into an independently wealthy aristocratic family. His brother (Abbott Lowell) became president of Harvard University, and his sister (Amy) became an accomplished poet. Following graduation with honors from Harvard University in 1876, Lowell devoted his time to business and to traveling throughout the Far East. Based on his experiences between 1883 and 1895, Lowell published several books about the Far East.

He was not especially attracted to astronomy until later in life when he discovered an English translation of Schiaparelli's 1877 Mars observation report that included canals for the Italian word canali. (As originally intended by Schiaparelli, the word canali in Italian simply meant "channels.") Thus, in the early 1890s, Lowell became erroneously inspired by the thought of "canals" on Mars—that is, artificially constructed structures, the (supposed) presence of which he then extended to imply the existence of an advanced alien civilization. From this point on, Lowell decided to become an astronomer and then dedicated his time and wealth to a detailed study of Mars.

Lowell was unlike most other observational astronomers in that he was independently wealthy and already had a general idea of what he was searching for—namely, evidence of an advanced civilization of the Red Planet. He spared no expense to support this quest and obtained the assistance of several noted professional astronomers to help him find an excellent "seeing" site upon which to build this private observatory for the study of Mars. Constructed near Flagstaff, Arizona, the Lowell Observatory was opened in 1894 and housed a top-quality 24-inch (61-cm) refractor telescope that allowed Lowell to perform some excellent planetary astronomy. However, his observations tended to anticipate the things he reported, like oases and seasonal changes in vegetation. Unfortunately, the professional astronomers on his staff would label the same blurred features as simply indistinguishable natural markings. As Lowell more aggressively embellished his Mars observations, key staff members such as Andrew Ellicott Douglass (1867-1962) began to question Lowell's interpretation of these data. Perturbed by Douglass's scientific challenge, Lowell simply fired him in 1901 and then hired another professional astronomer, Vesto Melvin Slipher (1875-1969), to fill the vacancy.

In 1902, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave Lowell an appointment as a nonresident astronomer. He was definitely an accomplished observer but often could not resist the temptation to stretch greatly his interpretation of generally fuzzy and optically distorted surface features on Mars into observational evidence of the presence of artifacts from an advanced civilization. With such books as Mars and Its Canals, which was published in 1906, Lowell became popular with the general public who drew excitement from his speculative (but scientifically unproven) theory of an intelligent alien civilization on Mars, a civilization

A Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL, Pasadena, California) scientist carefully assembles the first primitive close-up image of Mars—taken by NASA's Mariner 4 spacecraft as it flew past the Red Planet on July 14, 1965, at an altitude of 6,120 miles (9,846 km) above the surface. This historic flyby encounter provided scientists with their first glimpse of Mars at close range and put to rest all the popular speculations and myths, originating in the late 19th century, that the planet was home to an advanced civilization. The spacecraft took 22 television pictures, which covered about 1 percent of the Red Planet's surface and that revealed a vast, barren wasteland of craters, strewn about a rust-colored carpet of sand. Although the "engineered canals" reportedly observed by Percival Lowell in 1890 proved to be nothing more than an optical illusion, the Mariner 4 images did suggest the possibility of ancient natural waterways in some regions of the planet. (NASA/JPL)

that was struggling to distribute water from the planet's polar regions with a series of elaborate giant canals. While most planetary astronomers shied away from such unfounded speculation, science-fiction writers flocked to Lowell's alien civilization hypothesis—a premise that survived in various forms until the dawn of the space age. On July 14, 1965, NASA's Mariner 4 spacecraft flew past the Red Planet and returned images of its surface that shattered all previous speculations and romantic myths about a series of large canals that had been built by a race of ancient Martians.

Since the Mariner 4 encounter with Mars, a large number of other robot spacecraft have studied Mars in great detail—both from orbit and on the surface. No cities, no canals, and no intelligent creatures have been found on the Red Planet. What has been discovered, however, is an interesting "halfway" world. Part of the Martian surface is ancient, like the surfaces of the Moon and Mercury, while part is more evolved and Earthlike. In this century, robot spacecraft and eventually human explorers will continue Lowell's quest for Martians—but this time, they will hunt for tiny microorganisms possibly living in sheltered biological niches or else frozen in time as fossilized evidence of ancient Martian life-forms that existed when the Red Planet was a milder, kinder, and wetter world.

While Lowell's quest for signs of intelligent life on Mars may have lacked scientific rigor by a considerable margin, his astronomical instincts about Planet X—his name for a suspected icy world lurking beyond the orbit of Neptune—proved correct. In 1905, Lowell began to make detailed studies of the subtle perturbations in Neptune's orbit and predicted the existence of a planet-sized trans-Neptunian object. He then initiated an almost decade-long telescopic search but failed to find this elusive object. In 1914, near the end of his life, he published the negative results of his search for Planet X and bequeathed the task to some future astronomer. Lowell died in Flagstaff, Arizona, on November 12, 1916.

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