Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Astronomer and author Percival Lowell was born on March 13, 1855, in Boston, into the old-line Lowell family. He traveled in the Far East and wrote on Japanese culture, but in the 1890s he focused entirely on astronomy. He founded the Lowell Observatory (1894) in Flagstaff, Arizona, which was the first to be deliberately built in a remote, elevated location for optimal observations. He intently studied Mars and charted what he believed were its “canals,” writing the books Mars and Its Canals (1906) and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908), widely popularizing the notion that Mars sustained intelligent life. For this, astronomers largely shunned Lowell and his observatory. His search for a planet beyond Neptune led to the discovery of Pluto in 1930, a name influenced by his initials, PL. (It’s now a dwarf planet.) Though discredited, Lowell is viewed as America’s greatest popularizer of planetary science before Cornell’s Carl Sagan.