February 2011


Hence the pizza!  Nice of the NY Times Op-Ed page to allow me a little room to celebrate what would have been Clyde Tombaugh’s 105th birthday.

No doubt Percival Lowell (1855-1916) is worth a novel in his own right.  Though he’s been dead nearly a century now, his life has to strike us as almost theatrically staged, tinged with madness, loss and obsession — and aligned in some mysterious fashion with the hidden workings of the universe.

The Lowell family is legendary in Massachusetts; with the Cabots, Lodges, Forbeses and Adamses they are (or were) the Brahminest of the Brahmins, producing inventors, entrepreneurs, novelists, abolitionists, architects, etc.  His brother Abbott Lawrence Lowell (1856-1943) became president of Harvard; his sister, the poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925), won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.  Percy himself studied mathematics at Harvard under Benjamin Peirce, graduating with distinction.  In 1893, having encountered the work of astronomer Camille Flammarion — and finding his way thereby to the wonders of Mars via a “spiritist” avenue — Lowell turned his attention to the nighttime sky.

He was an intent, imaginative observer; his hundreds of drawings of the Martian surface attest to his many long nights at the objective.  We now understand that the “canals” he saw were in fact moving patterns of dust and sand, varying seasonally with the changing of the Martian weather.  (And if you’d like a tour of the Martian landscape today, you can scoot on over to Google Mars.  Too cool.)  Still, Lowell’s drawings retain their evocative power.  In their unusual proportions, odd angularity, and the patterned combination of irregular nodes and slender tendrils, we may see an echo of the spidery elegance of the Art Nouveau movement exerting some imaginative influence:

And I know I can’t be the only one to see the Paris Metro design as peculiarly Martian, or at least H.G. Wellsian…

with the defining Art Nouveau monsters being the terrifying Martian tripods!

Anyway, Lowell’s 1895 volume Mars makes for interesting reading today; in it, we can see Lowell struggling to make sense of what he saw — and struggling to restrain his own excitement about what he thought he saw — which was, to his mind, evidence of an advanced civilization at work, effortlessly altering the surface of its home planet. It is, I think, a hopeful gaze that Lowell turned to Mars; and surely his mix of imagination and dedication also characterized his later search for Planet X.

Safe to say, Percival Lowell began with a hypothesis that excited him — that Martians existed, that Planet X was out there — and worked through his evidence, hoping keenly he would find what he wanted to see, occasionally tempering his hope with caution:

But look!  Here’s some evidence that the Martians are actually paying some attention. That, or the rubber gloves don’t fit AT ALL at Google Books.

(What can be going on here?)