Bond, Bruce. "100 Years on Mars Hill," Astronomy, June 1994, pp. 28-39.

 

Bond, Bruce. "100 Years on Mars Hill," Astronomy, June 1994, pp. 28-39.

This is a celebration of the centennial of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. The
observatory was the brainchild of an amateur astronomer with a passion: Percival Lowell who
believed passionately that there was life on Mars. Passion-driven, he gave up what was a
promising career in the diplomatic corps and, using his family fortune, built his observatory to
find evidence for his belief.

Martian enthusiasm in Lowell's adult years was nothing new: H. G. Wells, published "War of the
Worlds" in 1898, Garritt Service wrote "Edison's Conquest of Mars," (1898) and in 1912, Edgar
Rice Burroughs published his "Under the Moon of Mars." And at about the same time, young
Robert Goddard dreamed of building a rocket to take him to Mars. Lowell himself gave lectures,
published articles in Popular Astronomy and The Atlantic, and wrote three books: "Mars,"
(1895), "Mars and Its Canals," (1906) and "Mars as the Abode of Life" (1908). Mars was, then,
literally and figuratively, "in the air."

But there was this difference: Percival Lowell had enough of a fortune to indulge his fantasies.
He built an observatory containing one of the best telescopes in the world just to observe the Red
Planet. And if professional astronomers could not discern his "canals on that planet," their
failures could be explained in that their instruments, and their locations, were not as good as his.

By late in the 1890s, Lowell was under attack by the astronomical community. He ran into
enormous professional hostility. Nonetheless, his money had begun an observatory which grew
into an institution. Percival's brother Lawrence, President of Harvard, for example, donated
$10,000 to buy a 13-inch refractor lens with which to pursue yet another of Percival's wrong
ideas: the existence of a planet beyond Neptune. Lowell had convinced himself that such a planet
existed and could account for the perturbations in Neptune's orbit.

Years after Percival's death, in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh, a young astronomer at the Lowell,
discovered Pluto using the instrument dedicated to that purpose and bought by Lawrence. (It is
not mentioned in this article that Percival's mathematics had nothing to do with the final location
and identification of Pluto. Tombaugh's discovery was entirely serendipitous.) But, no matter,
discoveries were made at the Lowell Observatory over the years and its "science" was lauded by
professionals.

The point in all of this: wacky enthusiasms by a wealthy patron eventually had professional
payoff. If the enthusiast is rich, his "wacky ideas" can be employed usefully by science and
scientists. The Lowell Observatory is now 100 and has long outlived Lowell's enthusiasms.
More, it has made up for those enthusiasms by doing significant professional work.