Mapping Martian Canals

September 06, 1992|By DOUG BIRCH

FLAGSTAFF, ARIZ. — Flagstaff, Ariz.-- Here, high atop Mars Hill, is where it all began: the wishful thinking and wild speculation that turned one man's grand delusion into an interplanetary mania.

On a cool summer evening, my 11-year-old daughter waits with a line of tourists in front of a barrel-shaped building to peer through a 24-inch, wood-and-brass telescope. It's the same device Percival Lowell used almost a century ago to study Mars' seasonal vegetation, map its oases and plot the triangular mesh of canals built by the planet's inhabitants to channel water from the poles to its parched equatorial regions.

Of course, there were no canals, no oases, no visible vegetation and no ditch-digging Martians.

But who knew? Up until the U.S. began its Mariner spacecraft missions in 1964 all anyone could say about Mars was based on blurry evidence from Earth-based telescopes. Ignorance bred imagination. The notion of public works-minded Martians, little and green or large and Technicolor, intrigued millions of people worldwide.

The wealthy amateur astronomer pursued evidence for his vision of Martian civilization with the tenacity and zeal of a paparazzi at observatory in the thin air of a mountaintop, far from city lights and pollution.

Today, the founder is buried a few steps from his 24-inch refracting telescope, in a tomb shaped like an observatory with a blue glass dome.

Mr. Lowell was a singular figure, but he was not alone. "Many people, many astronomers at the time claimed they'd seen canals," said Dr. Robert W. Smith, a historian of science at the Smithsonian Institution. "What got Lowell into problems is that he went a great bit further, and started to speculate on the possibility of intelligent life on Mars. It drove the professional astronomers crazy."

That speculation became the conventional wisdom. In 1901, a group in Paris offered a cash prize to the first person to contact beings from another world. But Mars was excluded, because talking to a native of the red planet was considered too easy.

Some scientists consider Mr. Lowell an embarrassment. That's too bad. Fraud is rightly regarded with horror by researchers. But honest errors, blunders, missteps and mistakes are a natural part of science.

If experimenters always guessed right, they wouldn't need to bother with experiments. And while science should be disciplined, it does not necessarily have to be cold-blooded or passionless.

Take the California researcher who may have found a subtle difference in the architecture of the brains of gay men, compared with those of heterosexual men. The researcher is gay himself and had a lover who died of AIDS. He hoped to help erase the stigma felt by gays by proving that homosexuality was a result of nature rather than nurture, as "natural" as being right- or left-handed.

Does that mean his research is junk? Not as long as its accurate and can be confirmed.

Accuracy, it seems, was not Mr. Lowell's long suit. His strength was his bold vision.

"Even though today we know that he was wrong and he was making his statements on evidence that might not stand up to scientific standards, he spurred following generations to take up the exploration of Mars," said Bill Buckingham, director of public programs at the Lowell Observatory.

Mr. Lowell's wrong turns sometimes led to tangible scientific discoveries. He mistakenly believed, for example, that neighboring galaxies, whole swarms of stars, were single stars with planetary systems.

If so, he thought he might find evidence of intelligent life on those distant worlds. So he had his chief astronomer, Vesto Melvin Slipher, study these supposed planetary systems.

In the course of this study, Mr. Slipher discovered that the light from each galaxy was shifted toward the red end of the spectrum, strongly suggesting that the objects were all traveling away from the Earth at tremendous speed.

That curious fact was much later recognized as evidence for the Big Bang, the theory that the universe began with a huge explosion and has been expanding ever since.

In 1902, Mr. Lowell theorized that a "Planet X" seven times more massive than the Earth lay at the fringe of the solar system, causing slight deviations in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. The amateur astronomer, who died in 1916, never found "Planet X."

Lowell Observatory scientists somewhat reluctantly continued their founder's search for the planet, assigning the task to a junior colleague, Clyde Tombaugh. In February 1930, the search paid off, when Mr. Tombaugh discovered the planet Pluto by examining photographs taken by a Lowell telescope.

(Observatory scientists chose the name Pluto, suggested by an 11-year-old English schoolgirl, in part because its first two letters are Percival Lowell's initials.)

Pluto, it turns out, is not "Planet X." It is smaller than the moon and not massive enough to account for the variations Mr. Lowell detected. Some astronomers believe that Planet X may still await discovery.

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