Today, we tell about Percival Lowell whose work led to the discovery of the planet Pluto. His efforts and imagination helped change the history of astronomy in America.
Percival Lowell came from a New England family with a long history in America. The Lowell family first came to the colony of Massachussetts in sixteen thirty-nine. One of Percival Lowell’s ancestors, John Cabot Lowell, manufactured cloth. He became an important American industrialist in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries.
Percival’s father, Augustus Lowell, worked in the family cloth business. He settled his family in Boston, Massachusetts. Percival was born there in eighteen fifty-five. He had a younger brother, Abbott Lawrence, and a younger sister, Amy.
Percival Lowell attended American and European private schools as a young man. He studied mathematics at Harvard University. After he finished his studies at Harvard in eighteen seventy-six, he traveled in Europe and the Middle East for a year. Then he worked as a financial officer in the cloth business of his grandfather. After several years, Percival realized he was not happy as a businessman. So he decided to travel to Japan to study its culture and language. While there, he was asked to go with a special trade group from Korea to establish trade relations with the United States.
In eighteen eighty-three, Mr. Lowell traveled to Korea as a diplomat. He reported on a clash there between Korean and Japanese troops. Mr. Lowell remained in East Asia for ten years. He returned home when each of his six books about East Asian subjects was published.
Percival Lowell also had an intense interest in astronomy and mathematics. In eighteen ninety-three he left Tokyo for the last time and returned to the United States. He decided to spend more time observing the planet Mars. He had studied observations by the famous Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. He found notes that described markings on Mars that Mr. Schiaparelli called “canali” Mr. Lowell came to believe that intelligent life created the markings on Mars.
In eighteen ninety-four, he built an observatory near Flagstaff, Arizona. He had the world famous telescope maker Alvan Clark and Sons make a telescope for his observatory. He began a program of observing not only Mars, but also Venus and Mercury.
Mr. Lowell published his first book about Mars in eighteen ninety-five. In it, he developed a theory that intelligent life had created waterways all over the surface of Mars. His theory was that Martians were trying to bring water to the warm areas near the equator of the planet.
Mr. Lowell’s theories were based on what were serious scientific studies of that time. Yet his theories about life on Mars may have had more lasting influence on many writers of imaginary stories. Three years after Mr. Lowell’s book was published, H-G Wells published his famous book “War of the Worlds.” Mr. Wells’ story told of a Martian invasion of Earth. The Martians that he imagined lived on a dry and wasted planet. This is very similar to Mr. Lowell’s description of Mars.
Mr. Lowell’s theories about Mars also influenced Edgar Rice Burroughs. Mr. Burroughs is best known for stories about “Tarzan.” He also wrote a series of books about an American who traveled to Mars and fell in love with a beautiful princess. The popular series began in nineteen twelve with “The Princess of Mars.”
Mr. Lowell’s book, “Mars and Its Canals,” was published in nineteen-oh-six. In that book, he expanded his theory about Martian life. He said he could see changes in the seasons on the surface of Mars. He said the darkening of the Martian surface during some times of the year was caused by the growth of plants. His theory of Martian life became so complex that he made maps of cities and waterways on the planet.
Percival Lowell did not know that his eyes played a part in the markings he saw on Mars. Experts explain that the movement of air in the atmosphere and natural qualities of the human eye caused him to see markings that were not there.
Percival Lowell also studied the effect of gravity on the planet Neptune. Small changes in the movement of Neptune led several astronomers to believe that an undiscovered planet was affecting Neptune’s orbit. Mr. Lowell called it Planet X.
Mr. Lowell himself searched for Planet X for two years starting in nineteen-oh-five. He made the search by comparing two pictures of the same part of the sky. The photographs would be taken several weeks apart. The astronomer would then check both photographs. An object in the solar system could be identified if it appeared to move from its place in the earlier photograph.
However, the first search failed. In fact, he failed to recognize Planet X in a few photographs. He searched again for it several years later. Percival Lowell did not have the chance to discover Planet X. He died suddenly in November, nineteen sixteen.
The search for Planet X did not restart at Lowell Observatory for years. Then in nineteen twenty-five, Guy Lowell, a relative of Percival, gained control of the observatory. He decided to seriously search for Planet X. He wanted to continue the work Percival had started.
In the following years, Percival’s brother, Abbott Lawrence, provided money to build a special photographic telescope. The new telescope was completed in early nineteen twenty-nine.
That year, an observatory official, V.M. Slipher, offered a young man a job working with the new telescope. The young man’s name was Clyde Tombaugh.
Mr. Tombaugh got a job a Lowell Observatory after he sent drawings of his observations of Jupiter and Mars. He quickly learned how best to use the new photographic telescope at the observatory. He carefully planned his research to make the most of his time. On February eighteenth, nineteen thirty, he discovered an unusual object after less than one year of searching. The object moved slowly in the sky like a distant planet. Percival Lowell’s Planet X had been found!
On March thirteenth, Clyde Tombaugh and V.M Slipher announced the discovery of a new planet. The date was the seventy-fifth anniversary of Mr. Lowell’s birth.
Mr. Tombaugh continued to record the motion of the new planet for thirteen years. He found more than seven hundred small bodies that orbit the sun, called asteroids. He also discovered a number of star systems called galaxies.
During his life, Percival Lowell did not enjoy the success he hoped to find in astronomy. He died long before the search for Planet X resulted in the discovery of Pluto. And his theories about waterways and complex life on Mars have been disproved. In nineteen sixty-five, NASA’s Mariner Four spacecraft showed that no waterways existed on Mars.
Yet, the institution Mr. Lowell established in Flagstaff, Arizona, has made many discoveries in addition to that of Pluto. Evidence that the universe is expanding was first discovered at Lowell Observatory by V.M. Slipher. Also, the rings around the planet Uranus were discovered there.
Lowell Observatory now has four telescopes and is continuing to expand. It supports programs that bring astronomy to the public.
Astronomers at Lowell and many other observatories continue to search for life beyond our planet. Their efforts continue Percival Lowell’s tradition of scientific investigation.