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Lowell, Percival

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Summary Article:Lowell, Percival (1855–1916) from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Subject: biography, astronomy

Place: United States of America

US astronomer and mathematician, the founder of an important observatory in the USA, whose main field of research was the planets of the Solar System. Responsible for the popularization in his time of the theory of intelligent life on Mars, he also predicted the existence of a planet beyond Neptune, which was later discovered and named Pluto.

Lowell was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 13 March 1855. His interest in astronomy began to develop during his early school years. In 1876 he graduated from Harvard University, where he had concentrated on mathematics, and then travelled for a year before entering his father's cotton business. Six years later, Lowell left the business and went to Japan. He spent most of the next ten years travelling around the Far East, partly for pleasure, partly to serve business interests, but also holding a number of minor diplomatic posts.

Lowell returned to the USA in 1893 and soon afterwards decided to concentrate on astronomy. He set up an observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona, at an altitude more than 2,000 m/6,600 ft above sea level, on a site chosen for the clarity of its air and its favourable atmospheric conditions. He first used borrowed telescopes with diameters of 30 cm/12 in and 45 cm/18 in to study Mars, which at that time was in a particularly suitable position. In 1896 he acquired a larger telescope and studied Mars by night and Mercury and Venus during the day. Overwork led to a deterioration in Lowell's health, and he could do little research 1897–1901, although he was able to participate in an expedition to Tripoli in 1900 to study a solar eclipse.

He was made non-resident professor of astronomy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1902, and gave several lecture series in that capacity. He led an expedition to the Chilean Andes in 1907, which produced the first high-quality photographs of Mars. The author of many books and the holder of several honorary degrees, Lowell died in Flagstaff on 12 November 1916.

The planet Mars was a source of fascination for Lowell. Influenced strongly by the work of Giovanni Schiaparelli – and possibly misled by the English translation of ‘canals’ for the Italian canali (‘channels’) – Lowell set up his observatory at Flagstaff originally with the sole intention of confirming the presence of advanced life forms on the planet. Thirteen years later the expedition to South America was devoted to the study and photography of Mars. Lowell ‘observed’ a complex and regular network of canals and believed that he detected regular seasonal variations that strongly indicated agricultural activity. He found darker waves that seemed to flow from the poles to the equator and suggested that the polar caps were made of frozen water. (The waves were later attributed to dust storms and the polar caps are now known to consist not of ice but mainly of frozen carbon dioxide. Lowell's canal system also seems to have arisen mostly out of wishful thinking; part of the system does indeed exist, but it is not artificial and is apparent only because of the chance apposition of dark patches on the Martian surface.)

Lowell also made observations at Flagstaff of all the other planets of the Solar System. He studied Saturn's rings, Jupiter's atmosphere, and Uranus's rotation period. Finding that the perturbations in the orbit of Uranus were not fully accounted for by the presence of Neptune, Lowell predicted the position and brightness of a planet that he called Planet X, but was unable to discover. (Nearly 14 years after Lowell's death Clyde Tombaugh found the planet – Pluto – on 12 March 1930; the discovery was made at Lowell's observatory and announced on the 75th anniversary of Lowell's birth.)

Lowell is remembered as a scientist of great patience and originality. He contributed to the advancement of astronomy through his observations and his establishment of a fine research centre and he did much to bring the excitement of the subject to the general public.

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