Planetary Intelligence, Percival Lowell, and
the Theory of Intelligent Life on Mars
by William SHEEHAN
Harvard/Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
Sunday August 24, 2003
in connection with "Mars Madness" Week
"That Mars is inhabited is as certain as it is uncertain what those inhabitants may be."
So wrote Percival
Lowell in his book Mars as the Abode of Life.
When H. G. Wells
wrote The War of
the Worlds, he was taking his page from
"No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs... It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger.... Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds are ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment."
When Edgar Rice
Burroughs wrote in A Princess of Mars of the dead sea
bottoms of Barsoom, the name by which the Martians
themselves supposedly knew their world, and of the hard and pitiless struggle
for existence of its inhabitants on a dying planet, he too cited
Orson Welles broadcasting on the radio on Halloween Evening 1938, Ray Bradbury lovingly describing the canals in The Martian Chronicles, were alike taking their inspiration from Percival Lowell.
It is altogether
fitting and proper that we remember - in this week when Mars will approach closer
to the Earth than it has been for sixty or seventy thousand years - Percival
Lowell. He was the man who more than any
other created our fascination with the Red Planet; he grew up in
Augustus, was the owner of several textiles mills, who chose his wife from one
of the leading cotton families of
At dinner and music
parties given by the family, Augustus disapproved of ribaldry, and did not
allow a volume of "the atheist" Shelley in the house. He was irrevocably opposed to
prerequisite Grand Tour of Europe (which took him as far as Syria), he tried to
do the right thing -- acting as treasurer of a cotton mill owned by his father
and managing trusts and electric companies for his grandfather. But inwardly he chafed; he wrote that
In the end, the only thing Percival Lowell managed to commit himself to passionately and without reserve was Mars.
An observer, peering at a distant planet through the telescope, is involved in interplanetary surveillance work: a kind of remote-sensing, espionage, and intelligence-gathering of the sort that would have interested Graham Greene or John La Carre. We have heard a great deal recently about the limitations and abuses to which intelligence information can be applied. In the interests of topicality, I would like to suggest that the debate about Mars -for a decade or so around the beginning of the 20th century rising to the level of a furor - was not only a question of whether there were intelligent beings on that planet, but the way intelligence was gathered - and applied - by astronomers on Earth. It came down to a question of what we knew about Mars - or what we thought we knew - and how we thought we knew it. Not only the dots but the way the dots were connected up. Those old-fashioned debates about Mars, which seem so quaint, are not only of historic interest in this week of pondering matters Martian. They contain cautionary tales about how we make sense of our own world, allowing us to indulge reflections on basic questions concerning how we come to know – perhaps, more accurately, how we come to believe we know.
As a background to that discussion, let me, briefly, describe what views had been entertained about Mars before Percival Lowell came upon the scene and crystallized a particular way of looking at the planet which has been remarkably influential in the years since and has even been described with its own adjective: Lowellian.
Consider the visual observer, seated at the eyepiece of his long-tubed and optically imperfect telescope, observing a distant planet. The planet is small, only twice the diameter of the Moon; it is also very far away. Even at its most opportune vantage-points, like the one presented this summer, it is never less than 140 times the distance of the Moon. The French writer Bernard la Fontenelle, writing less than a century after the invention of the telescope, considered the view of the planet presented to the likes of such skillful astronomers as Christiaan Huygens and Giovanni Cassini as singularly uninformative, and could still brush Mars off with the comment: "It isn't worth the trouble of stopping there." But there were bright snowy caps at the poles, and the period of rotation and seasons were singularly Earthlike; so that already by the end of the eighteenth century, William Herschel could remark that "the inhabitants probably enjoy a situation similar to our own."
By the time the first maps of Mars were drawn in the early 19th century, the planet's surface features had resolved into a series of interconnected dark patches which were thought to be seas spread on a background of continents. The ruddy-hued aspect of the continents make the planet, even as seen with the naked-eye, hang like a drop of blood on the night sky. Since the earliest times it has been an orb to conjure with: among the Babylonians, it was Nergal, the Star of Death, and in other times and other places it has been strongly associated with bloodshed and the God of War. To a geologically minded John Herschel, looking at the planet from the perspective of ninenteenth century science, the ochre lands massed within the small prospect of the Martian disk suggested the distant view of old and rusted landscapes like those of Red Marley in Gloucestershire.
The 1877 opposition
of Mars, when the Red Planet's approach was only a few hundred thousand miles
greater than the distance it will attain late this August, a number of
important studies were carried forward. Asaph Hall used the recently-installed 26-inch refractor of
the U.S. Naval Observatory in
Here are two representations of Mars, made with comparably sized telescopes, under similar conditions of observation. At first glance, it is hard to believe they can possibly show the same planet. One is, as British amateur astronomer the Rev. T. W. Webb remarked, "a picture," the other is "a plan." One shows patches of delicately shaded and nuanced detail; the other consists of hard and sharply bounded outlines where the demarcations of the different districts make up the famous - or infamous – canali. The canals of Mars!
Both Green and
Schiaparelli were in the Earth's interplanetary intelligence service. They were in the position of interpreting the
"whiffs" of planetary detail, transported via light-waves across the
millions of miles of space, jostled by passage through the columns of air over
"It was in this context that the importance of guided projection in our understanding of symbolic material was brought home to me. Some of the transmissions which interested us most were often barely audible, and it became quite an art, or even a sport, to interpret the few whiffs of speech sound that were all we really had on the wax cylinders on which these broadcasts had been recorded. It was then we learned to what extent our knowledge and expectations influence our hearing. You had to know what might be said in order to hear what was said. More exactly, you tried from your knowledge of possibilities certain word combinations and tried projecting them into noises heard. The problem was a twofold one - to think of possibilities and to retain one's critical faculty. Anyone whose imagination ran away with him, who could hear any words - as Leonardo could in the sound of bells - could not play that game. You had to keep your projection flexible, to remain willing to try out fresh alternatives, and to admit the possibility of defeat. For this was the most striking experience of all: once your expectation was firmly set and your conviction settled, you ceased to be aware of your own activity, the noises appeared to fall into place and be transformed into the expected words. So strong was this effect of suggestion that we made it a practice never to tell a colleague our own interpretation if we wanted him to test it. Expectation created illusion."
In terms of Green's and Schiaparelli's maps of Mars: how does one even attempt to account for the difference in their interpretations of the “planetary intelligence?” To answer that question leads us into profundities at the very heart of perception. One type of personality has a need for order in their world; such people demand clear-cut structure. Here was Schiaparelli, an engineer and a mathematician and a classicist. The other personality type is more tolerant of ambiguity, relatively better able to hold in mind what William James called "feelings of yes but..." They have a softer, more nuanced view of reality. Here was Green.
Which one more perfectly renders the surface of the planet? The hard lines, or the softer focus? It is hard to say. They each do, after a fashion. To one person, a vague concept may not be a concept at all. But - as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said - "Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn't the indistinct one often exactly what we need?" Would one see the world through the eyes of a Manet, or a Bougereau?
What astronomers saw on Mars turned, in the final analysis, more on the structure of their personalities than on any of the other factors -telescope, atmosphere - that are usually discussed. This was true in spades in the case of Percival Lowell. He was a take-no-quarter kind of person - all black and white. In his world - indeed, in his drawings of Mars and other planetary surfaces - everything was depicted in strong outline; there were virtually no shades of grey.
Gordon W. Allport, the distinguished Harvard psychologist, wrote in his classic book The Nature of Prejudice of the "prejudiced" vs. the "tolerant" personality. First the prejudiced personality: "In all cases of intense character-conditioned prejudice," he observes, "a common factor emerges.... Threat-orientation. Underlying insecurity seems to lie at the root of the personality.... Since the person cannot in his conscious life face and master the conflicts presented to him, he represses them in whole or in part. They are fragmented, forgotten, not faced."
resentment of his father - his chafing at the repressed society of
In his last book on
the Far East, Occult Japan, published the same year as Mars,
of the "feminine" in Occult
indeed coincided with his embrace of the "masculine" - in his father's
sense of male ego ideals - in his attempt to forge an identity that was
rational, scientific, strenuous and "Western." Mars, of course, was a strongly masculine
focus of interest as
Ambivalence toward parents, moralism, dichotomization, a need for definiteness, externalization of conflict, institutionalism, and authoritarianism.
For purposes of the present discussion, I wish to emphasize, in particular, dichotomization - the need for either/or thinking - a tendency to see things in terms of black and white. (Boston Puritanism vs. savoir faire, work-ethic vs. hedonism, feminine vs. masculine, rational thinking vs. irrational thinking, the West vs. the East.)
Just before leaving
"The most self-evident explanation [of the canals] is probably the true one; namely, that in them we are looking upon the result of the work of some sort of intelligent beings.... The amazing blue network on Mars hints that one planet besides our own is actually inhabited now."
This was certainly, if nothing else, a matter of throwing one's cap over the fence!
That summer of 1894,
with a borrowed 18-inch refractor (since 1961 it has been in
"Panoramic views are painfully plain. They must needs be mappy at best, for your own elevation flattens all below it to one topographic level. Field or woodland, town or lake, show by their colors only as if they stood in print; and you might as well lay any good atlas on the floor and survey it from the lofty height of a footstool. Such being the inevitable, it was refreshing to see the thing in caricature. No pains, evidently, had been spared by the inhabitants to make their map realistic. There the geometric lines all stood in ludicrous insistence; any child could have drawn the thing as mechanically."
That, in a nutshell
- or in a Noto-shell - is
At that same
opposition of Mars at which
"Now, in the struggle for existence, water must be got, and in the advanced condition of the planet this is the only place where it is in storage and whence, therefore, it may be had. Round the semestral release of this naturally garnered store everything in the planet's organic economy must turn. There is no other source of supply. Its procuring depends upon the intelligence of the organisms that stand in need of it. If these be of a high enough order of mind to divert it to their ends, its using, from a necessity, will become a fact. Here, then, is a motive of the most compelling kind for the tapping of the polar caps and the leading of the water they contain over the surface of the planet: the primal motive of self-preservation. No incentive could be stronger than this."
With juries in the
courtroom, the "power style" is the one which most impresses and is
most apt to convict. No doubt
"Under the best conditions these dark regions, which are always shown with smaller telescopes as of nearly uniform shade, broke up into a vast amount of very fine details. I hardly know how to describe the appearance of these 'seas' under these conditions [but] from what I know of the appearance of the country about Mount Hamilton as seen from the observatory, I can't imagine that, as viewed from a very great elevation, this region, broken by canyon and slope and ridge, would look just like the surface of these Martian 'seas.'"
In a letter to John
Hamilton Reynolds, John Keats writes: "It seems to me that we should
rather be the flower than the Bee.... Now it is more noble
to sit like Jove than to fly like Mercury:--let us no therefore go hurrying
about and collecting honeybee-like, buzzing here and there impatiently from a
knowledge of what is to be arrived at.
But let us open our leaves like a flower, and be ... receptive; budding
patiently under the eye of Apollo."
At least in this case the flower, Barnard, was receptive and budded
patiently under the eye – not of Apollo, but of Mars; the Solis Lacus (eye of
Mars) hemisphere of the planet indeed revealed to him much more than it did to