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Percival Lowell Dies

On November 12, 1916, Percival Lowell, astronomer and founder of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, died at the age of 61. Originally from Massachusetts, Lowell traveled throughout Asia after obtaining a degree in mathematics from Harvard. After returning to the United States, he used his family’s fortune to devote his time to studying Mars. In 1894, he built the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff in the Arizona Territory because of its high altitude, distance from city lights, and lack of cloudy nights. Lowell’s primary interest at the observatory was Martian canals that had been drawn by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli has described linear structures on Mars as “canali,” meaning “channels.” However, when his work was translated, the word that was used to describe these structures was “canals,” which lead some English speaking astronomers, including Lowell, to believe that someone had built canals on the surface of Mars. Many of the ideas proposed by Lowell about the existence of intelligent life forms on Mars were mocked by people in the scientific community. While in Flagstaff, Lowell also observed Venus and spent the later years of his life looking for the mysterious Planet X. In 1930, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto with the help of Lowell’s notes on Planet X and the use of the Lowell Observatory telescope. While many of his theories have been discredited, Percival Lowell’s practices in observation became popular among the scientific community.

Items in Our Collection:

Percival Lowell: the culture and science of a Boston Brahmin by David Strauss

Mars: the lure of the red planet by William Sheehan; Stephen James O'Meara

The book of the cosmos: imagining the universe from Heraclitus to Hawking by Dennis Richard Danielson