Percival Lowell


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?)

Percival Lowell and his secretary, Wrexie Louise Leonard, were constant companions from 1893.  They exchanged fond letters; they each had a bedroom in the Baronial Mansion on Mars Hill; and together they tended the garden behind the Clark Observatory, proud of the watermelons and wary of the invading rabbits – calling them “Jack Rabbit, Esqr.”

But, as William Putnam says in The Explorers of Mars Hill, “proper Bostonians just did not marry their secretaries.”  Instead, Percival Lowell married the irascible Constance Savage Keith in 1908.  What exactly compelled him to choose Constance over any of the other options is unknown; it is well known, however, that Constance disliked the long-established Wrexie, believing her a rival for Percy’s affections.

And maybe she was.  Percival Lowell asked Wrexie to stay on as his secretary; remarkably, she did.  And when Lowell died in 1916, Wrexie sat down and composed a tribute to the man she had accompanied for nearly twenty years.

The book’s epigraph demonstrates the devotion Wrexie felt for Percy.  As William Putnam helpfully points out, hidden in the epigraph’s several lines are tributes to Lowell himself and two of his most faithful “computers” at Harvard College Observatory — the doughty Elizabeth Langdon Williams and John Kenneth McDonald — as well as the two women who made up the binary stars of the great astronomer’s romantic life.

Preambient light = Percival Lowell
Waning, lingers long = Wrexie Louise Leonard
Ere lost within = Elizabeth Langdon Williams
Just, kind, masterful = John Kenneth McDonald
Life’s sweet constant = Lowell Savage Constance

Could it possibly be a coincidence that only Constance Savage Lowell’s  initials are reversed — Constance being, as William Putnam notes, “the one who almost succeeded in completely negating [Lowell’s] life’s work?”  Might Wrexie have been extracting, here, a very quiet kind of of revenge?

In any case, it’s a fitting tribute to a man whose own initials – PL – are embedded in the very name of the planet whose discovery he made possible. If it was love, it was a love contained and tamed – or so it would appear – but one that insisted, in this smallest of ways, on proclaiming itself.

A blogger at the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science has been writing about the Planet X story lately; in his most recent post, Darin points out that in the initial announcement in 1930, V.M. Slipher went out of his way to credit Percival Lowell for leading the way to the planet’s ultimate discovery — while underplaying Clyde Tombaugh’s central role in the painstaking photographic search.

The extension of credit to Lowell, and the relative under-recognition of Tombaugh, could suggest that Slipher simply knew where his bread was buttered.  You give credit to the man with his name on the letterhead, after all, not the undereducated farmboy from Kansas.  And part of the mission of Lowell Observatory was to rehabilitate the reputation of its founder, who was thought to be a bit of a kook.

(For example, Lowell had believed passionately in the existence of a Martian civilization — sustained by an elaborate series of canals.)

It’s worth noting that Slipher’s relationship to Lowell — and the Lowell family — was (understandably) a complicated one. By 1930, Slipher’s old friend Lowell had been dead for fourteen years. Constance, Percival’s widow, had been a thorn in Slipher’s side since the astronomer’s death, spending more than a decade fighting Lowell’s multimillion-dollar bequest to his own Observatory and cutting the astronomers’ salaries in the bargain. On the other hand, once the Planet X project got underway again in 1928, the Lowell family (apart from Constance) invested substantially in the equipment needed, including the remarkable triplet lens the 13-inch astrograph required. It can be imagined that the family expected results from their investment, and that Slipher’s emphasis of Lowell’s role in the discovery of Planet X was indeed at once an acknowledgment of his old friend’s ancient, originating ambition and a recognition of the family’s more recent, crucial involvement.

But consider another line as well. Slipher — and others involved in the Planet X search — knew they had an unusual case in Pluto.  Even before announcing their discovery to the world, they had tipped to the notion that Lowell’s calculations had not in fact been borne out by the discovery of Planet X, because it was too small to have been detected mathematically.  Still, one can imagine Slipher and the others being reluctant to get in the way of a good news story.  We don’t know who wrote “confirmed” here in the headline, but I bet Slipher didn’t protest too much.

Note that this question should be distinguished from the matter of whether Planet X should have been called a “planet” to begin with.  What other word would have fit?  Though its exact dimensions weren’t clear, it was still thought to be a fairly large object.  Certainly it was no asteroid.

Constance Lowell, widow of Percival Lowell, was an odd bird.  Her most obvious oddity was her contention that she was blind when in fact she was not.  As I discovered, this could get her into trouble.

While doing research for the novel, I was lucky enough to interview Henry Giclas.  Giclas, who was 95 when I interviewed him, called himself a “hill rat”.  Born and raised in Flagstaff, he spent time with Clyde Tombaugh during Clyde’s tenure at the Observatory (on Mars Hill), and later went on to become an astronomer in his own right.

Henry Giclas at the Pluto telescope

It was from Henry Giclas that I learned where you might have bought bootleg liquor in Flagstaff during Prohibition — in “Mexicantown”, on the other side of the railroad tracks.  I interviewed Giclas in his house in Flagstaff while he sat in an overstuffed armchair, watched TV, and fussed with his hearing aid while his daughter (as I remember it) served tea and cookies.

It was there that Henry Giclas told me the story of Constance Lowell and the birthday cake.

Constance, pretending to be blind, went everywhere with a lady’s maid.  One day, this maid decided to bake Constance a cake; she put candles on it to be festive.  She brought it into the dining room of the “Baronial Mansion” (the ramshackle house the Lowells kept on Mars Hill), with the candles lit.  Whereupon Constance, evidently overcome with satisfaction — someone hadat last seen what she deserved from life — said, “Oh, I see you baked me a cake!”

But of course, she couldn’t see the cake, supposedly; and everyone had to pretend as though they hadn’t heard anything.

After Henry Giclas told me that story, he shot me a strange, discomfited look.  He didn’t really know who I was, after all, and now he’d told me this story.  What would I do with it?  And — well, I couldn’t help but imagine the irascible, powerful, contemptuous Constance Lowell hovering around him, too, still a figure worthy of dread after all those years.

In the archives of Lowell Observatory, under the excellent guidance of archivist Antoinette Beiser, I came across this typewritten memo – in its original, a few pages long.  While it’s not clear who composed this note, someone has penciled “VM?” in the upper margin — Vesto M. Slipher, director of the Observatory.

In this memo, Slipher (probably) is acknowledging that there was some delay in the announcement of the discovery of Planet X (later Pluto).  Clyde Tombaugh found the retrograding trans-Neptunian object on February 18, 1930.  Lowell Observatory didn’t announce their findings until March 13.  This happened to be Percival Lowell’s birthday — as well as, through one of this story’s many cosmically-arranged coincidences, the date on which Uranus was first discovered.

Aside from the pleasing timing, why the delay?

As I’ve written here before, the astronomers at Lowell weren’t sure what they had.  The object was too small to be the gas giant they’d been expecting.  But their mathematics seemed to indicate that a gas giant was indeed what was out there to discover; only a very large planet could perturb the orbits of Uranus and Neptune in the way that was posited.  So they were understandably puzzled to have found a very small object in just the place that Lowell’s mathematics suggested a gas giant would be.

But what’s of interest to me in this memo is the phrase “In view of the unusual character of the discovery into which the institition [sic] and its founder had given so much in the way of effort and time we had to be content to allow the momentary gusts of emotion to blow over…”

One way of reading this goes: we’d been looking for the thing for so long, and under such pressure to find something, that we wanted to make sure we had something genuine before we said anything.

That’s a legitimate reason to hesitate, of course.

But I think, too, that it’s fair to read those three weeks as a pregnant pause, during which the astronomers decided whether to call this object Planet X or not — that is, whether the accumulated pressures of history and institutional expectation outweighed the obvious problems with the object.  It wasn’t what they were expecting.

So – should they gamble?  Should they go ahead and try to call this object Planet X?

Had it been a gas giant — had they found what they’d been expecting — I bet they would have announced it the next morning.  Instead, over the next three weeks, they took countless photographs of the object, hoping to solve their conundrum.  They never did.  And in the end, of course, they didn’t call it Planet X when they finally announced it.  They just called it a “solar system object apparently trans-Neptunian.”  It was the press that called it Planet X, and so a planet was born.

Ah, the sweetness of certainty!  This spread appeared — appropriately enough! — on page X1 of the New York Times on Decmber 9,1906, when Lowell was — if not “recognised as the greatest authority” on the Red Planet, certainly the only one with his own Observatory from which to study it.

I just love the design of this piece (do check it out in full at the link above, it’s a gloriously giant PDF).  The Martian globe seems particularly evocative when seen from below:

and why not throw a shepherd in there, sure!

And as for the content…


Well, The New York Times has been wrong about bigger things, I guess.

Clyde here at least gets equal billing with Percival Lowell. Notice that in June 1930 astronomers are still puzzling out Pluto’s size. They’re getting closer — rather than being 1200 times the size of Earth, now it’s “judged to be the same size as earth.”  (Today we know its mean radius to be 0.18 of Earth.)  Estimates of Pluto’s size decreased over the course of the 20th century; in 1976, astronomers determined that Pluto’s surface featured methane ice, which meant that the planet’s albedo was higher than had been theretofore suspected — which, in turn, meant the planet was smaller than it appeared.

The discovery of Pluto’s moon, Charon, in 1978, allowed for very accurate measurements of Pluto’s mass — now determined to be about 0.2% of Earth’s.

Here’s the larger version of that iconic picture of Lowell at his 24″ Clark.  Notice the handsome chair.  As his descendents say, “Percy brought a lot of Yankee with him to Flagstaff.”

If you visit Lowell Observatory you can see this telescope still in operation — in fact, you can look through it!  Check out Lowell’s visiting hours and directions here.

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