I have been thinking about Mars lately. Well, ok, I’ve been thinking about Mars for a long time but even moreso recently because of the hubbub about Dennis Tito’s planned manned mission to the Red Planet in 2018. My husband and I have joked about volunteering for the trip; let me tell you, we look pretty good on paper except for our terrible vision. If there were any sort of interplanetary contact lens malfunction, the mission would be doomed. Mars has always fascinated me as it has many humans throughout history, being our closest neighbor and the most Earth-like planet in our solar system. Most intriguing was the idea that there could be, or at least could have been at some time, intelligent life on Mars. This tantalizing (or terrifying?) possibility was first brought to the attention of the general public largely due to Percival Lowell and his Martian canals.
Percival Lowell was a Bostonian who lived from 1855 to 1916, and like many gentlemen of his day he was a man of many interests, but his primary pursuit became astronomy. He built an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona expressly for the purpose of observing Mars and mapping the features on its surface. It had been noted by others, particularly Giovanni Schiaparelli, that there were features on Mars that looked like series of lines with dark intersections. He had dubbed these canali.
Lowell also observed and sketched these “canals,” presenting them to the public as signs of an intelligent society on Mars due to what he considerd to be the canals’ “unnatural” sppearance. He presented the idea that these canals were an attempt by Martians to bring water down from the Martian ice caps to irrigate a drying and dying planet. It is easy to see how an idea like this would spark the public’s imagination; it certainly served as inspiration for some very famous science fiction literature, including Ray Bradbury’s haunting and melancholy Martian Chronicles.
Other astronomers were skeptical, however, and Lowell’s research was largely disregarded by the academic community. Not long after, the lines both Schiaparelli and Lowell saw were found to be an optical illusion. Lowell did have another significant contribution, however, and it was towards the discovery of the once-planet Pluto. He spearheaded the search for what was then called Planet X, and the planet was eventually discovered in the observatory that Lowell founded though not until 14 years after Lowell’s death. The unfortunate epilogue here is that Lowell was incorrect in his initial hypothesis that lead to the search for Planet X. Lowell noted that the orbits of Neptune and Uranus were off from what they theoretically should be, and he hypothesized that this was due to the gravitational pull of Planet X. It was later found that this apparent irregularity in the orbits of the two outer planets was actually due to the use of an incorrect mass for Neptune. Using the correct mass for that planet, the orbits are explained. I find it a little sad that just about everything Lowell theorized was actually incorrect, but by a huge stroke of luck, he was still right about the existence of a 9th planetary body in our solar system, so that is something. These days, he mostly gets credit for founding observatories rather than for really advancing astronomical science, but perhaps even more important were his contributions to bringing astronomy into the public eye and inspiring generations of hopeful stargazers.