Percival Lowell firmly believed that life existed on the planet Mars. The Martian population, he thought, was a race of highly civilised beings. They had been responsible for the network of canals built to irrigate the otherwise dry and dusty planet. The canals could be seen through a telescope as faint lines criss-crossing the surface. Where two canals crossed, Percival Lowell detected blobs, or oases which he judged to centres of population.

Percival Lowell was born at Boston, Massachusetts in 1855. He was educated at Harvard, spent a period in the Far East, and then decided to devote his life to astronomy. Percival Lowell was fairly wealthy, so he was able to obtain a refracting telescope and set up his observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona. He was especially interested in the planets, and his book putting forward ideas on Mars, Mars the Abode of Life, was published in 1908.

Percival Lowell drew maps of Mars, showing the canal system in considerable detail. However, if Percival Lowell actually saw this detail on the planet’s surface, no other astronomer did to the same extent, and Percival Lowell’s idea started a fierce controversy. Now it is know that the “canals” are not regular straight lines, but ill-defined blobs. There is not enough water on the planet to fill one river, and certainly not enough to fill an extensive network of canals.


A detail from Lowells map of Mars. He saw blobs and dark markings on the planets surface, and linked these up to form the extensive network of “canals”. The blobs at the crossing of two canals were thought to be centres of population.

Although Percival Lowell was probably wrong in his theories about Mars, he was a good mathematician. After carefully plotting the orbits of two of the other outer planets, Uranus and Neptune, he calculated that slight disturbances in the orbit of Uranus must be due to another planet, even more remote from the Sun than Neptune. Percival Lowell was unable to find the planet, and it was not until 1930, 14 years after Percival Lowell’s death, that the planet Pluto was discovered.

Astronomers at Percival Lowell’s own laboratory found Pluto in the position calculated by Percival Lowell. But the planet was fainter and smaller than Percival Lowell predicted, and this is the reason it took so long to discover.

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