Percival Lowell: Astronomer Who Searched for Life on Mars

James E. Purdy, Portrait of Percival Lowell (1904).
James E. Purdy, Portrait of Percival Lowell (1904).

 Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain.

Percival Lowell (March 13, 1855–November 12, 1916) was a businessman and astronomer born into Boston's wealthy Lowell family. He devoted much of his life to the search for life on Mars, which he conducted from the observatory he built in Flagstaff, Arizona. His theory of the presence of canals on Mars was ultimately disproved, but later in life, he laid the groundwork for the discovery of Pluto. Lowell is also remembered for founding the Lowell Observatory, which continues to contribute to astronomical research and learning to this day.

Fast Facts: Percival Lowell

  • Full Name: Percival Lawrence Lowell
  • Known For: Businessman and astronomer who founded the Lowell Observatory, enabled the discovery of Pluto, and fueled the (later disproved) theory that canals existed on Mars.
  • Born: March 13, 1855 in Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  • Parents' Names: Augustus Lowell and Katherine Bigelow Lowell
  • Education: Harvard University
  • Died: November 12, 1916 in Flagstaff, Arizona, USA
  • Publications: Chosŏn, Mars, Mars as the Abode of Life, Memoirs of a Trans-Neptunian Planet
  • Spouse's Name: Constance Savage Keith Lowell

Early Life

Percival Lowell was born in Boston, Massachusetts on March 13, 1855. He was a member of the wealthy Lowell clan, famous in the Boston area for its long involvement in textiles and philanthropy. He was related to the poet Amy Lowell and the lawyer and legal expert Abbott Lawrence Lowell, and the town of Lowell, Massachusetts was named for the family.

Percival's early education included private schools in England, France, and the United States. He attended Harvard University, graduating in 1876 with a degree in mathematics. After graduation, he ran one of the family's textile mills, then traveled throughout Asia before taking a position as a foreign secretary at the Korean diplomatic mission. He was fascinated with Asian philosophies and religions, and ultimately wrote his first book about Korea (Chosŏn: the Land of the Morning Calm, a Sketch of Korea). He moved back to the United States after 12 years living in Asia.

The Search for Life on Mars

Lowell was fascinated by astronomy from an early age. He read books on the topic, and was particularly inspired by astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli's description of "canali" on Mars. Canali is the Italian word for channels, but it was mistranslated to mean canals—defined as man-made waterways and consequently implying the presence of life on mars. Thanks to this mistranslation, Lowell began studying Mars to find proof of intelligent life. The quest kept his attention for the rest of his life.

In 1894, Lowell traveled to Flagstaff, Arizona in search of clear, dark skies and a dry climate. There, he built the Lowell Observatory, where he spent the next 15 years studying Mars through a 24-inch Alvan Clark & Sons telescope. He felt that the "markings" he saw on the planet weren't natural, and set out to catalog all the surface features he could see through the telescope.

Lowell made extensive drawings of the Mars, documenting the canals he believed he was seeing. He theorized that a Martian civilization, faced with climate change, had built the canals to transport water from the planet's ice caps to irrigate crops. He published several books, including Mars (1885), Mars and its Canals (1906), and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908). In his books, Lowell built a careful rationale for the existence of intelligent life on the red planet. 

A drawing by Percival Lowell (1896) depicting
A drawing by Percival Lowell (1896) depicting "canals" and dark areas on Mars. Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Lowell was convinced that life existed on Mars, and the idea of "Martians" was widely accepted by the public at the time. However, these views were not shared by the scientific establishment. Larger observatories were unable to find Lowell's finely-drawn network of canals, even with a markedly more powerful telescope than the one Lowell used.

Lowell's canal theory was finally disproved in the 1960s. Over the years, various hypotheses about what Lowell was actually seeing have been proposed. It's likely that the wavering of our atmosphere—plus some wishful thinking—caused Percival Lowell to "see" canals on Mars. Nonetheless, he persisted in his observations, and in the process, also charted a number of natural surface features on the planet. 

"Planet X" and the Discovery of Pluto

Mars was not the only object that drew Lowell's attention. He also observed Venus, believing that he could spot some surface markings. (It was later demonstrated that no one can see the surface of Venus from Earth due to the heavy cloud cover that blankets the planet.) He also inspired the search for a world that he believed was orbiting beyond the orbit of Neptune. He called this world "Planet X."

Lowell Observatory continued to grow, fueled by Lowell's wealth. The observatory installed a 42-inch telescope equipped with a camera so that astronomers could photograph the sky in search of Planet X. Lowell hired Clyde Tombaugh to participate in the search. In 1915, Lowell published a book about the search: Memoir of a Trans-Neptunian Planet.

In 1930, after Lowell's death, Tombaugh succeeded when he discovered Pluto. That discovery took the world by storm as the most distant planet ever discovered.

Later Life and Legacy

Percival Lowell lived and worked at the observatory for the remainder of his life. He continued his work observing Mars and using his observatory (along with a crew of dedicated observers and astronomers) until his death in 1916.

Lowell's legacy continues as Lowell Observatory enters its second century of service to astronomy. Over the years, the facilities have been used for moon mapping for the NASA Apollo program, studies of rings around Uranus, observations of the atmosphere of Pluto, and hosts of other research programs.

Sources

  • Britannica, T. E. (2018, March 08). Percival Lowell. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Percival-Lowell
  • "History." https://lowell.edu/history/.
  • Lowell, A. Lawrence. "Biography of Percival Lowell." https://www.gutenberg.org/files/51900/51900-h/51900-h.htm.