Saturday, August 19, 2017

Science, Fiction, Percival Lowell, and Superior Beings With Gills

On the eve of the 2017 solar eclipse, what better a topic than the Lowell Observatory, whose astronomers will be broadcasting on The Science Channel all Monday from Madras, Oregon?

There will also be events (but no actual "totality") at the Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill, above the dark skies town of Flagstaff, Arizona, which is over 7,000 feet above sea level.
"There is nothing in the world, or beyond it, to prevent... a being with gills, for example, from being a most superior person." 
Percival Lowell (March 13, 1855 – November 12, 1916)
Quote borrowed from 
"From the Hill: The Story of Lowell Observatory" by Rose Houk. 

I love the idea of a "most superior person" being a "being with gills"! That is perhaps my favorite of all the quotes attributed to Percival Lowell that I have been able to find on the internet.

Lowell's admiration for the imagined superior beings of Mars was based on his observations between 1894 and 1905, and before him of Giovanni Schiaparelli (in 1877) of what appeared to be a network of 30-mile wide irrigation channels on the surface of Mars.

Alien romance authors might be interested to read that Lowell's idea of a dying, drying planet --inhabited with water infrastructure engineers and planners whose ingenuity, imagination and foresight surpassed that of (his) contemporary public works departments, (but who ultimately might need to raid their neighbors)-- is said to have inspired early science fiction authors such as H G Wells ("War of the Worlds"); Robert A, Heinlein ("The Red Planet"),  Ray Bradbury ("The Martian Chronicles"), and Edgar Rice Burroughs ("The Gods of Mars"), and more.

It might have inspired the Tom Cruise movie "Oblivion". Tom's character did not have gills; he wasn't an alien, but his alien masters certainly wanted Earth's water.

Percival Lowell wrote three books about Mars: "Mars" (1895), "Mars And Its Canals" (1906), and "Mars As The Abode Of Life" (1908).

Some are available on project gutenberg. Not a lot of people seem to know that.  (Before Percival Lowell was interested in Mars, and in finding Planet X --which turned out to be Pluto-- he was fascinated by Japan and Korea). Apparently he took his portable telescope on his travels.

Lowell wrote "The Soul of the Far East", and "Noto An Unexplored Corner of Japan" (1891), which are available on Project Gutenberg. (No doubt the local Japanese were surprised by the latter title), also "Occult Japan, or The Way of the Gods" (1894). There were other books, and at his death, he left an unpublished manuscript entitled "Peaks and Plateaux in the Effect on Tree Life."

I wonder whether Lowell's ideas may have inspired the study of dendrology by his erstwhile friend, astronomy site-hunter and colleague, Andrew Ellicott Douglass, who left Mars Hill to found the Steward Observatory in Tucson ( bad weather and mosquitoes notwithstanding).

More stellar quotes from Percival Lowell:  Quotes  

One of my favorites is on Progress: ".... if nature abhors a vacuum, mankind abhors filling it."

Third edition
ISBN 069284454-6  or 9780692844540
Copyright Lowell Observatory

I purchased this beautiful little softback from the Lowell Observatory gift shop, primarily because I did not think I'd remember all the stories that the Lowell Observatory guides (astrophysics students and astronomrs) told about Percival Lowell and his lonely, nocturnal associates. I was fascinated to hear that Percival Lowell's theories about highly intelligent life on Mars (based on the "canals"... which were called "canali" by Giovanni Schiaparelli, the first astronomer to see the marks on Mars.)  As a sfr author and a blogger, I was intrigued that many of the science fiction "greats" were inspired by Percival Lowell's views on Mars. In my opinion, the best quote by Percival Lowell in Rose Houk's excellently written book is "There is nothing in the world, or beyond it, to prevent... a being with gills, for example, from being a most superior person."  According to the copyright page, the only people who may quote anything from this book, are people who write reviews (of the book).  Hence, I'm reviewing it, and in my view,  it is appropriate to award it 5 stars.

FYI this blog is not an Amazon affiliate, and the Amazon price offered for the 47 page 2nd edition,( instead of 50-page third edition bought at the Observatory) probably benefits no one except the predatory Amazon... and whoever purchases it.

Enjoy the eclipse responsibly! (Through special eyewear or in reflection or on The Science Channel).

Rowena Cherry

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