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Lowell, Percival

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1855-1916) US astronomer, best known for making the calculations which led, in 1931, to the discovery of the purported ninth planet, Pluto (see Outer Planets), though that distant world is no longer regarded as a genuine planet; its name was chosen in part because its first two letters were Lowell's initials. While he wrote no works which could be regarded as genuine sf, Lowell contributed immeasurably to the genre when he built upon the observations of Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910) – who reported seeing "channels" on Mars (mistranslated as "canals") – to develop the elaborate theory, articulated in his books Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908), that the imagined canals were the work of an advanced Martian civilization (now, he suspected, extinct) that had constructed them as part of a last, desperate effort to supply inhabitants of the parched, dying planet with needed water. It matters very little that, even at the time, there was virtually no evidence to support this theory, or that Schiaparelli's channels were later revealed to be optical illusions; for knowingly or not, Lowell had crafted an evocative and powerful myth that went on to have an impact on innumerable sf stories about Mars, its ancient but decadent culture, and its decaying cities connected by systems of canals. H G Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, and Robert A Heinlein are merely a few of the many writers whose visions of Mars were influenced by Lowell's ideas, and the continuing prominence of the planet in both sf and scientific endeavours to investigate the Solar System can be attributed in part to his persistent portrayals of Mars as a once-habitable world. Lowell's less celebrated activities include an effort to detect features on the surface of Venus (which proved to be as illusory as his Martian canals) and several visits to and books about Asia [not listed below], another of his major interests. After his death, craters on both the Moon and Mars were named Lowell in his honour, and Kevin J Anderson has employed Lowell as a character in his story "Canals in the Sand" (in War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, anth 1996, ed Anderson) and his novel, with Rebecca Moesta writing together as Gabriel Mesta, The Martian War: A Thrilling Eyewitness Account of the Recent Invasion As Reported by Mr. H.G. Wells (2005; vt The Martian War 2012 as by Anderson solo). [GW]

see also: Astronomy; Mrs Charles Wilder Glass; Kurd Laßwitz; Life on Other Worlds; Mercury; Mark Wicks.

Percival Lowell

born Boston, Massachusetts: 13 March 1855

died Flagstaff, Arizona: 12 November 1916


nonfiction (selected)


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