Through the eyepiece of my telescope I see a blob of yellow-orange, a mottled shape that ripples and boils, defying any attempt to focus it to a coherent image. Eye and brain struggle in concert to find detail in this vision, attempting to coerce scattered, jumbled photons into cooperation by an effort of will, an effort sadly lacking in effect.
It is neither a flaw in my equipment or perception that produces the chaos visible in my ocular, but the work of eddies and turbulence in the miles of Earth’s atmosphere that lie between my optics and the evening’s observing objective. Having crossed a distance of 118,000,000 kilometers through near-vacuum with minimal attenuation the sunlight reflected from my target has finally had to penetrate a barrier of thickening, roiling air--leavened with smog and a hundred varieties of particulate matter--to reach my temperature-stable telescope and acclimated eye. It isn’t surprising at all that the image resists resolution!
Still, I bend over the eyepiece, careful not to cloud it’s optics with my breath in the icy air, keeping a watch on my ruddy blob of choice--astronomy teaches patience if nothing else!--and just as I begin to seriously consider going inside for a fresh cup of tea, it happens.
The change is swift and only a few moments in duration, but my vigil is rewarded; without warning the air steadies and the image snaps into definition. My gloved hand races to find the fine-focus knob and what had been a hopelessly distorted and featureless globe of molten orange light is suddenly and shockingly transformed into another planet. A “red planet“, although its defining coloring is closer in fact to an orange hue.
Mars and I have a long history. In my nearly forty years as an amateur astronomer I’ve observed it countless times, closely viewing four of it’s closest and most favorable approaches to Earth--known as Oppositions in reference to Mars’ and the Sun’s relative positions in the vault of the sky during these events--and always tracking it night-by-night as it moves against the background stars of the ecliptic.
As the seeing improves my first rather irreverent observation of Mars is that it appears to suffer a horrific case of acne; the disk is crowned by a clear, oval patch of pure white. This is the polar cap, a region of water ice and frozen carbon dioxide which alternates with its twin at the opposite extreme of the planet in growing and shrinking with the passing of seasons over the course of the Martian year, which is nearly twice as long as our own.
As a volunteer at Lowell Observatory during my Senior year of high school in Flagstaff I had the pleasurable duty of guiding Friday night guests from the elegant Library to the great dome that houses the 24-inch refractor telescope, listening to the brilliant Charles “Chick” Capen as he wove tales of myth, history and scientific discovery, and then, after the visitors had departed, seizing the opportunity to join him in viewing Mars (or whatever planet was visible at the time) through the great ‘optik tube’ before securing the telescope and closing the dome for the night.
Lowell Observatory Staff and Volunteers, 1980
(from left: Brian Skiff, Charles Capen, Pamela Helm, Myself)
(One night in early 1980, only a few months before I enlisted in the Navy, I was privileged to be manning the dome and telescope control “paddle” when a distinguished guest came to visit the observatory, and so I was introduced to Professor Clyde Tombaugh--the discoverer of the dwarf-planet Pluto at Lowell in the late 1920s. I recall that it was a beautiful night for stargazing on the appropriately named Mars Hill and that Jupiter and Mars were paired in the eastern sky in lovely “conjunction”.)
As the seconds of steady seeing race by I search for more surface detail—a series of ripples cross the tiny disk to remind me that steady air is a luxury best not wasted—and become aware of subtle gradations in the coloring of the planet. A dark triangular shape comes into focus, then fades into the ochre hue of the surrounding as it shimmers in my view. Other forms appear and vanish again as I hurry to sketch them into my notebook. Just a few more seconds…
Lowell Observatory is named for Percival Lowell, who established it in Flagstaff in 1894 for the express purpose of Martian observation. Lowell was of a prominent Bostonian family, a “Brahmin”, well known for his books and articles about the Orient, in which he had traveled extensively, and for his clear, persuasive public speaking style. Having long been interested in science and the emerging technologies of the day, he became fascinated with the observations of an Italian astronomer named Giovanni Schiaparelli, who during the “great opposition” of 1877 had reported observing linear features on the surface of Mars. While Schiaparelli himself never went so far as to attempt to explain the markings he had discovered, Lowell quickly came to believe that the “canali” (“channels”) were in fact artificially-constructed waterways—“canals” —transporting vital water from the planet’s polar caps to the parched lands around its equator.
Percival Lowell's Mars
Lowell’s “Mars Theory” would capture the imaginations of millions around the world. From the single assumption that the “canals” were constructed by intelligent beings (Lowell was careful never to ascribe characteristics to his Martians), an intricate tale of a dying world and of a unified, peaceful civilization fighting to survive desiccation by disaster either natural or self-inflicted came to be. And recall that Lowell was an accomplished writer and speaker; his ideas were quickly disseminated via newspaper and magazine articles and books with evocative titles such as “Mars and its Canals” (1906) and “Mars as the Abode of Life” (1908).
While he wasn’t the first astronomer to believe in the likelihood of life on other planets, he was quite specific in his ideas and prolific in his writings and lectures; in his mind there was simply no other explanation for the “canals”. The problem was that no-one else seemed to be able to see the fine lines upon which he based his theory. Astronomers based at all the major observatories in the U.S. and Europe weighed in; except for Lowell’s and Schiaparelli’s those features remained unseen. Controversy erupted and debate raged as the 19th Century passed into the 20th, and Lowell, convinced of the veracity of his observations and conclusions, spent that first decade exchanging literary and verbal broadsides with astronomers around the world who simply didn't see what he saw.
Wikipedia defines a ‘crank’ as “a person who unshakably holds a belief that most of his or her contemporaries consider to be false” and we may comfortably place Percival Lowell in this category. However, I think it to his credit that he did not insist his staff at the Flagstaff Observatory be as centered on Mars as he was; in fact he encouraged them to pursue other studies in addition to their primary task of Martian study. His associates, then, proceeded to make significant discoveries and to develop new techniques in their “spare time”; pioneering the use of photography in planetary study and forging the observational tools that would bring about the discovery of Pluto in 1929.
And Lowell’s obsession with Mars had other far-reaching effects; his ideas inspired many writers, among them H.G Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” carried forward the idea of a slowly dying Mars launching an assault on Edwardian England, while Burroughs’ “John Carter” series spurred the imaginations of millions with “Barsoomian” canals, soaring cities and monsters on a world battling for survival. These literary creations have kept Lowell’s Mars alive in the public consciousness, and almost certainly influence us today in our robotic exploration of the red planet. How else can we explain the almost obsessive search for evidence of life on a world which has given us not the slightest evidence of a biosphere, either past or present?
It may be that Percival Lowell’s connection to us across the many years is the willingness to cling to a vision, a dream, in spite of all the overwhelming evidence against it.
My Mars Sketches (Opposition of 2003)
Mars shimmers again in my eyepiece, steadies for another second, and then violently boils over as my brief period of favorable “air” abruptly ends. I put down my unfinished sketch and rub my eyes to relieve their strain, then note the time for my observing logbook. After checking the view again I rise from my chair and stretch, then head inside for that fresh cup of tea and a brief break before resuming my wait for that next all-too-short period of “good seeing”, when for a few moments I’ll enjoy once again a relatively clear view of the Red Planet. There is a sense of history in this pursuit; of kinship with observers in a time before orbiting telescopes and computers, who kept the cold watch atop Mars Hill a long century ago.