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.
February 5, 2011
February 1, 2011
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?)
January 31, 2011
Thanks due to Antoinette Beiser, Kevin Schindler, Travis Marsala as Alan Barber, Kevin Strehlow as Clyde Tombaugh, and Chris Crockett (for his cameo as Vesto Slipher!) — and of course to the fine crew of Nobun Productions, without whom this book trailer etc etc.
January 31, 2011
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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.
January 30, 2011
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.
December 13, 2010
Back in October I had the chance to give a talk in conjunction with Dr. Bruce Greenway, a fellow Michigander and an actual professional astronomer. He made the most convincing case I’ve seen for Pluto’s reclassification — demonstrating beyond the shadow of a doubt that Pluto has far more in common with objects like Eris, Ceres, and Pallas than bodies like Mercury, Mars, Earth, or other canonical planets. The difference in mass is crucial — and the degree to which this massiveness has allowed the principal bodies in question to clear the neighborhood around their orbits. If you’re wondering whether Pluto’s more like Eris or Mercury, this graph ought to make the case plain:
I’m cribbing this slide from Bruce’s PowerPoint. It points out exactly how drastically the difference in mass affects the amount of other “crap” in the neighborhood. And seems to suggest that — all legacy considerations aside — Pluto ought to be categorized with its fellow dwarves.
We ought also to be struck by how extremely unlikely it was that Clyde would have seen such a tiny little thing.
December 13, 2010
The stalwart and ever-interesting Fiction Writers Review has posted the conversation I had recently with Michael Shilling (author of the novel Rock Bottom) — in which we get into all kinds of writerly business. Check it out!
“When I’m down in the guts of a book I work sentence-to-sentence, paragraph-to-paragraph, scene-to-scene, and I worry about pacing, timing, narrative interest, that sort of thing, and then suddenly there’ll be a chiming sound from some unfamiliar area of my brain that will suggest that A is going to fit neatly, or interestingly, into slot B. Which I then take note of, I think, and go on doing what I was doing. If you can understand the book you’re writing as you’re writing it, I think, it’s not big or interesting enough.”