365daysDate: August 24, 2009

Title: The Reemergence of Planetary Science: Revisiting Percival Lowell


Podcaster: Holly Larson Capelo from Columbia Astronomy

Organization: Columbia University Astronomy

Description: At the turn of the 20th Century, Percival Lowell published a series of books promoting the notion that there were advanced civilizations on Mars. His writing was particularly compelling to general readers, if not to the scientific community, because his physics-based vernacular lent credibility to his otherwise romantic notions of life on other planets. Although his interpretations have been discredited, Lowell’s state of the art observatory was the site of important developments in planetary sciences. I will read a short literary piece that reconstructs a day in Lowell’s life, and traces the last century of developments in the search for habitable planets.

Bio: Holly is a recent Columbia University graduate with dual bachelor degrees in Astronomy and Literature Writing. She currently manages the 1.3 meter telescope of the SMARTS CTIO consortium for Yale University, where she is also a teaching fellow in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the American Astronomical Society, the major organization for professional astronomers in North America, whose members remind everyone that One Sky Connects Us All. Find out more or join the AAS at aas.org.


Hello everyone, and welcome to Columbia Mondays! My name is Holly Larson Capelo and I’m a recent graduate of both the Astronomy and Literature Writing departments at Columbia University in the City of New York. Today the topic of our podcast is going to be The Reemergence of Planetary Science: Revisiting Percival Lowell. His is a name often associated with the planet Mars for inciting the widely held belief, at the turn of the century, that there was intelligent life on Mars.

Here is an excerpt from a short historical fiction, in which I imagine a night in the life of Percival Lowell, for which I used his own 1911 book, The Canals of Mars, as source material.

It isn’t to win the one hundred thousand franc Guzman prize that Percival Lowell so studiously observes and renders the Martian-made landforms on the surface of Mars. After all, contact with a Martian does not count for the prize money. It would be too easy, the officials believe, since there is surely life on that planet. Lowell monitors the planet from the observatory he founded in Flagstaff, Arizona, which bears his own name, but which he refers to as a “Monastery of the Wild.” He has built it to commune seamlessly with nature.

At dusk, he marches over a desert mesa to the observatory dome, where he is the sole astronomer. For weeks he has heard nothing but coyotes and a quixotic nocturne through the phonograph horn. Chapters from his current book, The Canals of Mars lay in piles. In the introduction he justifies why his remote, ascetic existence behooves his scientific work. The desert is not just a pragmatic place to get a clear view of the sky; it helps him access the conditions of the red planet. When he imagines an alien world, he begins by relating to his own surrounds. Subsisting in Arizona, he thinks it not impossible to live on the surface of a scorched planet. He conjures all his knowledge of desert civilizations on earth: the Aboriginal tribes of Australia, the Berbers of the Sahara – peoples who flock to oases where they take sanctuary from dust storms and thirst. Shelved nearby are his previous books, primarily anthropological scholarship.

Each time he looks through his telescope, he feels as if he is voyaging a fraction closer to Mars. Viewing a distant landscape while immersed in his own arid abode, he ceases to distinguish between the desert populations on his or another planet. The data fits the model constructed in his mind’s eye. In the open dome, Lowell oscillates between telescopic eyepiece and paper. He sketches an imperfect circle with gray lead. He pauses to close his eyelid and sees branching blood-filled vesicles. A wind bristles his strawberry moustache and he realizes the unstill air will soon smear out the atmosphere between him and his target. He continues sketching the planet’s surface features, scrutinizing his own pencil marks. He likens them to a spider’s web seen against grass on a spring morning and concludes: these are the Martian canals.

Owing largely to the influence of the Italian scientist, Schiaparelli, Mars’ topology is as thoroughly rendered as the craters and basins on the moon. Two decades worth of sketches of the planet have resulted in an understanding that a day on Mars is about a long as a day on Earth. They have revealed that the Martian year brings with it seasonal changes; its polar icecaps grow and recede according to which hemisphere is tilted on its axis towards the sun. Lowell fancies Schiaparelli a fellow explorer to whom he dedicates this book referring to this master as “The Columbus of a New Planetary World.”

Lowell himself cannot know how many advancements will be made in the era following his own. In a few years Lowell Observatory will start using photographic plates in a camera with no blood or neurons floating behind its lens. This technology is enabled by optical principles founded upon dissections of our own eyes; where the concept of retina becomes photographic plate, and the pupil is aperture. Images of an as yet undiscovered Pluto will stand for a decade in a dusty stack. At Lowell Observatory they will observe the distant body of odd proportions and consider it the planet beyond Neptune that Percecpival has died hoping to find. Pluto will be recognized in the old plates. The planet’s monograph will be made out of Percival’s initials, P.L. Soon, western astronomers will chase the solar eclipse on a sea voyage to Africa. The bending of starlight around a darkened sun will verify Einstein’s relativistic theory of gravity. This theory will be the authority on planetary motion, leaving little unexplained in our solar system.

At this moment, Lowell looks past mesa after mesa in shaggy lines of earth towards the pine trees on the horizon. He believes that desert fauna flourish similarly on Mars. His books mark a dawn in the notion that a planet might be hospitable to life, a notion that will haunt human imagination the way an un-extinguished candle dances in the brain of someone sleeping near its slight flame. Mankind will indeed adventure toward Mars with their robotic missions: Voyager, Mariner, Phoenix, Spirit and ever more probes. The destination will be Mars’ polar ice caps, where we seek water, and look for unambiguous results in the signals sent back. We will be quick to attribute all signs of erosion to that life-giving liquid. We will encounter no beings who thrive by their neuronal computational capacity, their ocular acuity, or the bravery that pumps through their steam-engine hearts. Resources will still be channeled in hopes of discovering microbial life forms, which are only slightly more complex than the minerals in which they reside. Scientists will be met with the most institutional support when they espouse the slogan, “follow the water” in their mission design. They will have forgotten how convinced, hopeful, but proven wrong is Lowell, as he now considers the badge of blue ribbon along the receding Martian ice cap to be a sign of liquid water.

Throughout the coming century scientists will look deeply into water-like molecules to uncover the hydrogen atom, and sophisticated theories in quantum physics will result. This will allow them to describe exotic objects, billions of times more distant than Mars. Solar System studies will be relegated to the geologists, for some time regarded comparatively as adventurous as rocking at one’s own hearth, sweet hot milk in hand.

In the 21st century, planetologists will determine that ten percent of the stars in a portion of the sky have on order of ten planets orbiting them. They will realize that there are therefore as many or more planets in the Universe than there are stars in the sky. They will again gaze narcissistically towards these planets and hope for a plurality of societies. Like Lowell, they will succumb to that human inclination to imagine a creator not unlike our selves, though tempered by their empirical mindset. Germane to that same inclination, is the notion that there is an observer outside this world, who might apprehend the recent appearance of humankind on planet Earth.

As a discipline, Planetary Sciences will have a new dawn, guided not by the desire to probe into ever more unfamiliar territory, but more so to ascertain what celestial bodies might be equally as habitable as Earth. It will be realized that all the elements found in nature are the result of the processes inside of stars. Because of this connection, between matter and stars, looking to the sky will be an encounter with ones own origin. Around those stars, new planets will be discovered in impressionable quantities. The “follow the water” program will loosen funding from a society longing to encounter its likeness elsewhere. The tools employed in the service of cutting edge astrophysics will once again be directed at our local universe, as we hope to understand the process by which planetary systems come into being. Ever more scrutinizing definitions of “planet” will be enforced, and Pluto will no longer be called that way, but will keep its monogram.

Percival Lowell’s own eyes, used now to align print upon the page, will have long since dimmed and decayed. Though contained within his volumes will remain the question, “is there intelligence elsewhere the universe?” Lowell must lock the observatory before he rests in a few hours. He gropes at his pocket for the keys then finds them on the desk in the growing light of sunrise. Night is passed. The stars are nearly extinguished. As Lowell pens what he perceives, the crimson sky fades to pink, and the pink to ashes.

This has been a podcast of Columbia University here in the City of New York. For more information about public events of Columbia Astronomy visit outreach.astro.columbia.edu. Our next Columbia Monday podcast will be by Destry Saul on August 31st entitled The Accidental and Amateur Birth of Radio Astronomy. Have a great day and keep listening.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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