by Kevin Beamer
I recently finished reading ‘Lowell and Mars’ by William Graves Hoyt, and I’d like to recommend it to anyone interested in the history of astronomy.
The book is primarily focused on Percival Lowell’s theory that the canals that he saw on Mars were proof that intelligent life existed on that planet. Lowell’s theory, and the scientific and public debate surrounding it are covered in detail.
‘Lowell and Mars’ is really about much more. It begins by describing Lowell’s intense concerns over good, stable seeing. Good seeing is the reason he located his observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona (although he could have done better, but he thought it was the best choice at the time). ‘Lowell and Mars’ also describes other work done at Lowell’s observatory. Lowell and his assistants were among the first to use spectrographs to measure planetary rotation and the speed and rotation of ‘white nebulae’ (galaxies). They were also among the first to photograph planets and some deep-sky objects, which is impressive considering the state of photography in the early 20th century. Imagine trying to complete a 30-hour exposure of the Andromeda galaxy.
Lowell also predicted, with some accuracy, the existence of ‘Planet X’ (a.k.a. Pluto), although he did not live to see it confirmed. Ironically, Pluto appears on some of the photographic plates taken at Lowell’s observatory during his lifetime. It was there, but no one saw it for what it was.
In all, ‘Lowell and Mars’ is a good book. It’s easy to read, interesting, and informative. I really have only two complaints. The first can’t be helped, and doesn’t affect much – it is a little dated (published in 1976). This only really comes out when Hoyt mentions the Mariner missions as the most recent explorations of Mars. The second is that Hoyt doesn’t give a lot of insight into Lowell the man, as opposed to Lowell the astronomer. It’s not really clear why Lowell clung to his theory so doggedly in the face of opposition, or even why Lowell was motivated to pursue the areas of astronomy that he did. A little more about Lowell’s personality would have rounded the book out a little better.
Pick up a copy of ‘Lowell and Mars’ if you’re interested in the history of the astronomy. It’s worth reading, especially with Mars coming into opposition next year, and while we’re stuck under the Great Cloud Nebula.