The  Lowell Letters

Percival Lowell
Lowell at Flagstaff Telescope

   Percival Lowell was born on 13th March 1855 in Boston, Massachusetts, the eldest son of August Lowell and Katherine Bigelow Lowell. His siblings included Amy Lowell, the Imagist poet. He graduated from Harvard University with a distinction in mathematics.

   His first work after graduation was running a cotton mill for six years on behalf of his family. Later, he travelled extensively in the Far East and served as a foreign secretary and counsellor for a Korean diplomatic mission to the United States. Lowell also spent extensive periods of time in Japan, writing books on Japanese culture.

   In the eighteen-nineties he began to study Mars and took up astronomy as a full-time career. As from the winter of 1893–94, with his considerable wealth and influence, Lowell focused upon the study of astronomy, and founded the Lowell Observatory at Flagstaff, in what is now the State of Arizona.

   Over a period fifteen or so years (1893 to 1908) Lowell studied Mars with dedication, publishing his views on the habitability of Mars in three books: Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908). His writings include descriptions of what he saw as the "non-natural features" of the planet's surface, particularly the canals, single and double; and what he termed “the "oases," the dark spots at their intersections; especially with regard to the seasonal changes in the visibility of these. He formed a theory that a dying civilisation had built the canals to gain water from the little that remained at Mars’ poles.

   In 1906, Lowell started a search program to calculate predicted regions for a proposed “Planet X”, theorised to account for perturbations in the orbits of planets Uranus and Neptune. A Trans-Neptunian planetary body was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, working at the Lowell Observatory. It was named Pluto and this “ninth planet” was given the astronomical symbol made up from a stylised “P+L”, after the initials of Percival Lowell. However, it later emerged that the “Planet X” theory was incorrect. In 1978, the discovery of Charon, Pluto’s satellite, enabled the mass of Pluto to be more accurately calculated, and in 2006 it lost its planetary status when it was declassified by the International Astronomical Association.

   Lowell and his observatory were largely isolated because of his outspoken Martian theories. He died on 12th November 1916, after a cerebral haemorrhage.