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The Bizarre Beliefs of Astronomer Percival Lowell

Lowell’s theories were treated with skepticism even in his own lifetime

Percival Lowell in the 1900s. (Wikimedia Commons)

Astronomer Percival Lowell, born on this day in 1855, left a very concrete legacy in the form of the Lowell Observatory. His other legacies are less tangible, but have also had lasting effects.

At his observatory, established Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1894, Lowell made a number of discoveries, and also a number of blunders. The Lowell Observatory is still operating today, and was named one of TIME Magazine’s ‘100 Most Important Places’ in 2011. Today, it’s home to the Discovery Channel Telescope and a recognized research institute as well as a tourist destination. But here are a few facts about the man who founded it.

  1. Lowell founded the observatory to look for life on Mars—and he thought he found it.

He mentioned this theory as early as 1895, writes The New York Times. In fact, the reason he built his observatory in Flagstaff was that it was ideally located for observing Mars. The reason for his obsession with Martians, writes Kyle Chayka for Popular Mechanics: in his own mind, Lowell was building on the work of nineteenth-century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, whose observations of Mars included “deep trenches meandering across the red planet’s surface.”  Guess what’s a synonym for “trench”? Channel. And what’s Italian for “channel”? Canali.

Canali, of course, sounds like “canals.” And for Mars fans, Lowell chief among them, Chayka writes it was easy to make the leap to the existence of a super-advanced civilization irrigating Mars. Lowell, who had enough money and power to build an observatory because he felt like following up on Schiaparelli’s work, developed the intelligent design theory of Martian canals (which, by the way, don’t really exist) and popularized it.

“Lowell’s observations were as accurate as they could be for their time,” Chayka writes, “but his enthusiastic interpretation of the canals as Martian constructions alienated his assistants and annoyed Schiaparelli himself.”

  1. He spent a lot of time looking for Planet X (aka Pluto), but he thought it was much bigger than it is.

Although Pluto was eventually observed at the Lowell Observatory, Clyde Tombaugh didn’t manage it until 1930 (Lowell died in 1916). But in looking for a ninth planet, Tombaugh was building on Lowell’s theory. Lowell began the search for Planet X in 1906, writes Jesse Emspak for Smithsonian, hypothesizing that a planet beyond Neptune might be responsible for the eighth planet’s orbital irregularities. Even after Tombaugh found it, he writes, scientists thought it might be as massive as Earth.

“However, further observations showed that the object, now called Pluto, wasn’t heavy enough to affect Neptune’s orbit,” Emspak writes. “And when the Voyager 2 mission got better estimates of Neptune’s mass in 1989, it became clear that Planet X was unnecessary anyway.”

Today, though, some researchers have found new evidence for massive planets beyond Pluto, and just might discover one.

  1. He thought Venus had “spokes,” but was probably just seeing inside his own eye.   

The always-controversial Lowell also observed Venus, write William Sheehan and Thomas Dobbins for the Journal of the History of Astronomy. There, too, his theory was weird but proved to have lasting effect. In 1896, Lowell looked at on Venus, they write, and began to observe the planet, adjusting his telescope to allow his observations. But only when the opening of his telescope was between 1.6 and three inches, they write, could he observe spokes on the surface of the planet, like “the spokes of a wheel radiating from a central hub.”

“Lowell’s assistants took turns sketching the planet, but none of their depictions resembled Lowell’s, other than those of his secretary, Wrexie Louise Leonard,” they write. “Far from being discouraged, Lowell claimed that the impressions of a neophyte like Wrexie were compelling evidence that the features he recorded were objectively real because an utter novice is a ‘blank slate’ free of preconceived ideas and prejudices.”

Like his other, work these observations were received by the astronomical community with skepticism, leading to a small academic flame war. But what he was seeing was probably just an image of his own eyeball:  “by stopping down his telescope so severely, Lowell effectively converted it into an opthalmoscope,” they write. Unlike his other theories, this one didn't stick.

As Chayka writes, Lowell was a product of his time: a moment when technological improvements allowed astronomers unprecedented access to space, which sometimes led to unlikely theories. But as the spokes of Venus theory demonstrates, in Lowell was sometimes blinded by his desire to believe.

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