Planetary Intelligence, Percival Lowell, and

the Theory of Intelligent Life on Mars


 by William SHEEHAN


   presentation for

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. Lowell was a Boston Brahmin, a member of the family in the "town of the bean and the cod/who talked only to the Cabots, who in turn talked only to God.”  His cousin was poet James Russell Lowell; his younger siblings included Amy Lowell, cigar-smoking imagist poet whose work was much influenced by the letters she received from her older brother from Japan, and Abbott Lawrence Lowell, long-time president of Harvard.  Percival Lowell was also uncle (through another sib, Elizabeth) to McGeorge Bundy, dean of arts and sciences at Harvard before becoming White House assistant for National Security in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations where he became well known for his support of the Vietnam War.  David Halberstam said of him and other intellectuals involved in that effort, “If they were so smart, how could they have got it so wrong?”

   Lowell's name will be forever identified with Mars.  He spent twenty two years in intensive study of the Red Planet, and devoted a considerable part of his fortune to the establishment of an observatory (at Flagstaff, Arizona) devoted specifically to furnishing evidence for the existence of life on Mars.  He was very smart, and he too was to be famously wrong. 

   When H. G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, he was taking his page from Lowell:

    "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 Lowell, chapter and verse.

  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 Boston and did much of his writing about Mars here- Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), Mars as the Abode of Life (1908).

   His father, Augustus, was the owner of several textiles mills, who chose his wife from one of the leading cotton families of Boston.  He was described by Lowell's friend Wendell Barrett (one of the founders of the Harvard Lampoon), as "a man of such strong self-assertion that many people found him repellant." "A slightly built, tight-lipped, impeccably dressed businessman,... he epitomized bourgeois productivity and expected it from his children."  {T. J. Jackson Lears, No place of Grace, p. 234}.  He was a near-caricature of male ego ideals -- autonomous, righteous, aloof - whose rigidity did much to precipitate Percival's long and anxious quest for self-definition.

   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 Darwin's theory of evolution.  Percival was so conflicted that he effectively vacated the role of firstborn (which fell to his brother, the future president of Harvard).  He later wrote in a superficially laudatory obituary that his father was "impersonal," and that though the elder Lowell could give details on every plant in his garden he was innocent of any general framework that could explain the links between them (read: evolution).  Percival also denounced his father's "inherited doubly distilled" Puritanism and his hostility to loafing and recreation.  On the other hand, Percival was exceptionally close to his mother; he would continue to write to her, almost without fail, every day right up to her death.

  Lowell attended Harvard from which he graduated in 1876. In his studies, he achieved a nearly perfect balance between science and the humanities in his elective courses: eight in physics and math, six in classics and history.  His mathematics professor, Benjamin Pierce, regarded him "the most brilliant mathematician of all those who have come under my observation" and invited him to stay on at Harvard as a teacher.  Lowell declined; not, he later recalled, "because mathematics had not appealed to me as the thing most worthy of thought in the world" but because he preferred not to tie himself down. (He would have a hard time tying himself down to anything – or anyone – until he finally found his vocation as an astronomer at the age of forty.)

   After the 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 Boston was "the most austere society the world has ever known."  At twenty-seven, he broke off an engagement to an unidentified Brahmin woman, quit business and, supported by family money, embarked on a career as a traveler and writer in the Far East.  Travel, as he put it, was a way of seeking the good rather than the goods (thanks to a gift of $100,000 from his father, he had enough goods, and was absolved from the necessity of working another day in his life).  His escape to the Far East kept him from being devoured - utterly consumed and assimilated - by the ideals he associated with his overbearing father; apparently most of the family was stunned at his abdication.

   Even so, Lowell took a very long time finding himself.  He did not find himself as a mathematician; he did not find himself as a businessman; he postponed marriage; in the end, he did not even find himself as a Far Eastern traveler and writer (at first he relished the "exuberant, thoughtless gaiety" of Kyoto during his brief visit there in 1883; however, he grew increasingly irritated at the inefficiencies of "pre-modern" peoples, and his writings show much less sympathety with the Japanese outlook and way of life than those of Lafcadio Hearn.) 

   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 Washington, D.C. to discover the two tiny moons, named Phobos and Deimos - Fear and Flight - after the companions of the God of War mentioned by Homer in the Iliad. Nathaniel Green, a British portrait artist who gave lessons in painting to Queen Victoria, went to Madiera for the opposition, and produced drawings and a map of the planet with a 13-inch Newtonian reflector.  His study can be compared and contrasted with that carried out by Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli, who mapped Mars with the 8.6-inch Merz refractor at the Brera Palace in Milan. (It was Schiaparelli's map, by the way, that introduced the romantic nomenclature based on geographical locations of mythology and the Bible: Syrtis Major - the Great Bog; Chryse - the Land of Gold; Utopia, Elysium.  His map introduced the nomenclature that is the basis of that still used today.)

   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 Milan or Madeira, finally retrieved by their telescopes and registered on the astronomers' retinas before being reconstructed and interpreted by their brains.  The situation is precisely like that described by Ernst Gombrich, the art historian, who was employed by the British Broadcasting Corporation in their "Monitoring Service" of radio transmissions during World War II:

   "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."

    Despite his resentment of his father - his chafing at the repressed society of Boston - Lowell was a typical Victorian of the kind Freud was just then beginning to analyze.  All his life he suffered from repression, and - despite his efforts to do otherwise - in the end was unable to reconcile the claims of different parts of his nature.  The fragments that he could not resolve were simply split off, forgotten, not faced.

   In his last book on the Far East, Occult Japan, published the same year as Mars, Lowell attempted an analysis of the phenomenon of Shinto trances he had observed in Japan.  He argued that the ease with which the Japanese lost conscious personality in trance signified a "feminine" trait; the absence of Ego.  Indeed, he claimed, "Japan is the feminine half of the world."

   According to Lowell biographer, T. J. Jackson Lears:

    "Lowell's repudiation of the unconscious as 'feminine' underscored the crucial role he assigned to disciplined intellect.  Noting in Occult Japan 'how ill the self fares under these illusions and disillusions of the trance,' Lowell became increasingly concerned with the precariousness of selfhood...."

   Lowell's rejection of the "feminine" in Occult Japan 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 Japan had been a feminine one.  In 1893, Lowell began reorganizing his personality on the principle of repressing those parts he could not successfully assimilate.  According to Allport the psychological consequences of repression include:

   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.)

   Lowell's inability to deal with ambiguity - shades of grey -- made it more difficult for him to resolve issues around a common or middle ground.  He was singularly lacking in what the poet Keats called Negative Capability: "that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason-... being [capable] of remaining content with half knowledge." 


   Lowell, after reading Flammarion's La Planète Mars, which he received at Christmas 1893, set up a meeting with Harvard astronomer and Beacon Hill neighbor William H. Pickering, who had recently returned from Peru.  That meeting took place in Boston in January 1894, and led to a hurried scouting of sites in the western United States for one that by virtue of its desert climate and clear atmosphere would be advantageous for securing interplanetary intelligence at the forthcoming opposition in October 1894.  (Lowell's choice of Flagstaff was made in April 1894 on the basis of Pickering assistant A. E. Douglass's reports of favorable conditions there; up until then Lowell had never visited Arizona, and Douglass, in later years - he lived to be over ninety - admitted that his intelligence about sites was partly influenced by the fact that  Flagstaff had the best saloons of any of those he visited!)

    Just before leaving for Arizona, Lowell announced, in an address to the Boston Scientific Society, just what he expected to find out at his new observatory:

   "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 New Zealand, but has never been used there) Lowell observed Mars during June, from late August to early September and again from October to late November (during the intervening periods returning to Boston).  At first he was unable to make out the canals at all.  "With the best will in the world I can see no canals."  But persistence yielded results; eventually he constructed a series of gossamer-threaded globes - beautiful in their way -- of the planet.

   Lowell's globes of Mars show the reduction of the beautifully nuanced and subtle surface markings of the planet to the hard and fast categories of his thought: everything is rendered in hard black and white.  His depictions of Mars are best described in the words with which he had described the surrounding landscape on climbing the Arayama Pass on his way to the Noto Peninsula in 1889 (as he described in his book Noto: an unexplored corner of Japan, 1891):

   "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 Lowell's Mars.  A caricature of the actual planet; crazed with geometrical lines.  From his intelligence at the eyepiece, Lowell connected the dots and put together a compelling - but illusory - picture of a civilization of Martians, staving off extinction from thirst by building a planet-wide canal network to pump water from the polar caps.


   At that same opposition of Mars at which Lowell made his first set of observations - the last close one of the nineteenth century, in 1894 -- a man of a very different type, Edward Emerson Barnard, was studying the planet with the 36-inch refractor at Lick Observatory, at Mt. Hamilton, California.  Barnard was everything Lowell was not.  He was a self-made man.  Virtually orphaned in childhood (his father died before he was born; his mother was an invalid, and his older brother feeble-minded), he rose from a street-urchin's existence in post Civil War Nashville to become a discoverer of comets and a renowned - and eminently judicious - planetary observer.  Though he came to use a more powerful telescope, he expressed himself with much less assurance - or dogmatism - than Lowell did.  Forensic psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, in Eyewitness Testimony, has contrasted the difference between typical male and female speech on the witness stand and the influence it has on juries.  Males tend to use "power speech": they express themselves without  qualifications – verbal shades of grey.  An example is the following passage from Lowell.  In Mars as the Abode of Life (pp. 204-205) he is referring to the polar caps as the source of water on the planet.  This passage is chosen almost at random - for rhetorical style rather than substance – but it might be duplicated from almost anywhere in Lowell's voluminous writings:

  "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 Lowell seems more assured than Barnard, who as a young man had written (in an unpublished manuscript) that "it is well to fetter the wings of our fancy and restrain its flights.  Man is too quick at forming conclusions."  In 1894, Barnard saw an enormous amount of detail at the eyepiece of the great Lick refractor, a telescope twice the size of the one Lowell used; yet he still expressed himself cautiously and with qualifications.  He adopted in his prose what Loftus describes as the feminine style, expressing himself  with hedges such as "it seems to me" or "perhaps" rather than "must be," "is":

   "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.'"

      Lowell vs. Barnard.  What is the lesson of it?  That observation is a complicated process, and that one can be easily deceived.  In the end, Barnard saw a truer picture of Martian reality.  In contrast to Lowell's flat and schematized landscape, his Mars was three-dimensional - it partook of the rotundity of the actual planet.  He discovered indications of surface relief – canyon, slope and ridge – and was not betrayed by the illusion of a perfect flat-land.  He realized that the perfectly geometrical canals were also an illusion.  He observed a Great Dust Storm that obscured large parts of the surface – the most dramatic dust storm ever observed on Mars up to that time – while Lowell, unsuspecting clouds, thought it was the surface markings themselves changing before his eyes (in a “wave of darkening” – which was actually lightening – due to vegetative growth).

   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 the Bee, Lowell.


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