The Man Who Invented Mars

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Long before NASA was established in 1958, before JFK's impassioned speech about the space race, and before any of the Apollo missions or space shuttle successes and disasters, Percival Lowell devoted much of his career and considerable fortune to trying to prove that Mars hosted intelligent life. Viewed through his telescopes, the ancient, baleful Red Planet was about the size of a dime. Lowell believed he was seeing a network of canals on its surface. Therefore, he declared, Mars holds intelligent life. It is not necessarily like human life, he emphasized, but it is intelligent enough to build canals.

It is Lowell's vision of Mars that has enthralled and inspired earthlings ever since.

In 1895, Lowell published a book about what he believed he saw. He wrote articles about it for Popular Astronomy and The Atlantic Monthly. He lectured widely about it. He became famous and immensely popular. He was "of medium height, slim and handsome, with an athletic build and an intense expression," his biographer, David Strauss, professor emeritus of history at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, writes in an e-mail. "His erect bearing and fastidious dress contributed to a commanding presence."

Lowell enchanted the public with his charisma and the power and conviction of his beliefs. "He was a very effective popularizer of his ideas," says Robert Millis, director of the Lowell Observatory. "He was the Carl Sagan of his day."

The scientific community was less enthusiastic than the general public about the notion of intelligent life on Mars.

No matter. Wealthy, brilliant, charming when he wanted to be, Percival Lowell was confident in his heritage and convinced of his superiority to the "ruck and rubble" from Southern and Eastern Europe flooding onto America's shores. He was also seriously inner-directed. And with what he was certain was his discovery of the canals, he had found his life's work: to promulgate his sensational belief that Mars was the home of Martians.

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