Mars fantasist Percival Lowell has last laugh

November sees the centenary of Percival Lowell’s death. 

This Boston businessman- astronomer came from an upper-class family; “Boston is the home of the bean and the cod, where Lowells spoke only to Cabots, while Cabots spoke only to god,” quipped Bill Bryson quoting John Collins Bossidy.

Poor old Lowell was ridiculed for a monumental mistake he made. Eventually, however, he would have the last laugh, becoming the only person to have a planet of the solar system named in his honour.

In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, studying Mars at the Milan Observatory, claimed to have found lines on the planet’s surface. His term ‘canali’, meaning ‘channels’, was mistranslated as ‘canals’, leading to the widespread belief that the Red Planet supported intelligent life.

Lowell became hooked on the idea. Working in his observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona, he thought he could see the ‘canali’. Dark spots where the ‘canals’ met were ‘oases’. Martians, he surmised, were channelling water from the planet’s polar ice-caps to dry areas. Soon, he was ‘dining out’ on the Martian climate and civilisation both, alas, figments of his imagination. Lowell’s maps of the Mars surface were not corroborated by other astronomers and his ideas were rejected by the scientific community. The ‘canals’, some suggested, were due to scratches on the lens of his telescope.

The probes sent to Mars in our day reveal an arid lifeless landscape. What a pity Lowell was wrong! Encountering a Martian flora and fauna would have been fascinating. However, we shouldn’t be too hard on poor old Lowell; scientists often reach conclusions which turn out to be wrong. Palaeontologists, were sure that a marine creature known as the coelacanth had been extinct for 66 million years.

Then, on December 23, 1938, fishermen netted a strange fish in the waters off South Africa. A museum curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, recognised it as the long lost coelacanth. The species now bears her name.

By the mid 19th century, zoologists were certain that all of Africa’s large mammal species had been described. Congolese people, however, spoke of a hoofed zebra-like beast, they called the ‘okapi’, living in the forest. The claim was dismissed as another Abominable Snowman or Lough Ness Monster fantasy. Such a large creature couldn’t possibly have remained unknown to science for so long. Then, during Henry Morton Stanley’s ‘Dr Livingston I presume’ expeditions, press reports of a mysterious ‘forest giraffe’ began to surface. Parts of a carcass, sent to London, became the outstanding zoological event of 1901. You can now see okapis in Dublin Zoo.

Lowell had lost the run of himself about Mars but another of his fixations was more credible. There seemed to be irregularities in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus, the two gas giants furthest out in the solar system. Lowell became convinced that the gravitational pull of an as yet undiscovered planet was responsible for the wobbles. He spent his final years searching for it but without success.

In 1929, Clyde Tomaugh, a recruit to the Lowell Observatory with no formal training in astronomy, located a dwarf planet 6,000 million kilometres away. Finding an object one sixth the size of the Moon, which the Sun’s light took over five hours to reach, was an extraordinary achievement. Venetia Burney, an 11-year old English schoolgirl interested in classical mythology, suggested that the new planet be called ‘Pluto’, after the god of the Underworld. The name was adopted because its first two letters were Percival Lowell’s initials. Venetia received £5 for her idea.

Pluto is no longer deemed to be a planet, but one of the larger objects of the Kuiper Belt, a mysterious collection of orbiting rocks, asteroids and lumps of frozen ice. The supposed anomalies in the gas giant planet orbits were not due to Pluto but to errors in calculating Neptune’s mass.

Percival Lowell died suddenly of a stroke on November 12, 1916, aged 61.


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