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The most important story of our life time . . . maybe

What's going on this month on Mars may, IMHO, prove to be the most important story of our lifetime. It's not getting the hype it deserves from the press, but that's no surprise. I've written about this before, but what got me started this time around was a wonderful story Don sent me on Percival Lowell, the man who a century ago was convinced there was intelligent life on Mars - and even got the staid Wall Street Journal agreeing with him. In fact, they thought there was "human" life there. They were a tad over-enthusiastic and about a century ahead of their time. ;-)

Anyway, the story Don was talking about can be read here. That story inspired Dom to respond from Australia:

Pity he shifted his observatory to Flagstaff -- that monster telescope, if still around, would be a magnificent sight. Of course, it real terms of viewing the universe, Driftway Observatory is a thousand times better.

And I responded:

Ahhhh . . .how I wish it were. I appreciate the vote of confidence, but Lowell has me beat. The 25-inch Clark is alive and well and is not only in use, but as with Driftway Observatory, Lowell's main function today is public outreach and they do far, far more than I have ever dreamed. The only advantage I have is mine is here and I can be using it on five minute's notice ;-) . In fact, for a mere $150 you can reserve Lowell Observatory for an hour and a half. See:


A 25-inch refractor will put anything I own to shame, and Arizona skies are darker and clearer, though I suspect civilization has encroached on this observatory and they may have a problem with light pollution.

But Lowell is one of the most fascinating of characters. This was an excellent account and I'm glad they tied it to the current mission which I think is not getting the attention it deserves. This really could be the breakthrough as far as discovering life elsewhere is concerned and if they do, this will be the most important event of our lives, for I think this question of life elsewhere is getting stickier and stickier. It used to be such a sure thing - with all those stars there must be life. But the more we learn the less sure it has become. We assumed such a discovery - in fact, an encounter of the third kid - was just a matter of time - but there is more and more evidence that life is rare and intelligent life exceedingly rare - all of that, however, could change with what happens on Mars in the coming weeks. They won't find intelligent life, of course, but hard evidence of any sort of life would be a major find. You can follow the mission at this Web site:


Now that said, I was surprised that there was no mention in this article of Lowell's 1907 mission to Chile. Lowell didn't go personally, but he sponsored the mission by an Amherst astronomer who took an 18-inch (several tons) refractor there and set it up in the high dessert and came back with 13,000 photographs of Mars that were the talk of the day. The whole objective was to take advantage of an especially close approach of Mars from an ideal location. (no rain - the telescope was set up for months in the open - and very clear, very steady skies with Mars almost directly overhead. As perfect as you can get on earth.) We get to observe Mars closely for only a few months every two years and some approaches are much closer than others. Lowell sponsored this because he was sure the photographs would prove his visual observations were true and the Wall Street Journal, among others, felt he had succeeded. In 1907 that distinguished paper wrote that this was the most important story of the year 1907 - not the current financial panic, but " . . . the proof afforded by astronomical observations . . . conscious, intelligent, human life exists upon Mars." Visual observations from Chile, telegraphed to Lowell, had everyone in the expedition seeing the canals clearly and poor Lowell was chomping at th ebit for the photographs and in absolute ecstasy at these reports.

Today is you look at the tiny images - Mars measures just 5mm across on them - seeing evidence of life is like reading tea leaves. Those who thought the canals were real, such as Lowell, felt the photographs proved it. Others, with less-prejudiced eyes, could see no such evidence. (I've seen the images reproduced and they are wonderful, especially for the technology of the day, but I certainly can NOT see any sign of canals. )

This whole expedition was a sad cap to Lowell's Mars efforts. He battled with Todd, the leader of the expedition, over who owned the photographs which were actually taken by another person. After this effort Lowell shifted his emphasis to finding Planet X - Pluto - and after his death Pluto was indeed found by Lowell Observatory,as this article notes. I'm afraid, however, that it really does deserve it's demotion - it is real two bodies and they are two of many and Pluto isn't even the largest of such objects discovered. Still, it's interesting to note the emotional attachment people have for "lonely, little Pluto" as the ninth planet.

If you'll permit me a minor technical side note - Lowell came into this at the end of the age of giant refracting telescopes. The truth is, any refractor bigger than about 15-inches in diameter starts to seriously work against itself. The object of any telescope is to gather light - but as you make lenses larger and larger, you also have to make them thicker, or they can't hold their shape - and as you make them thicker, they absorb more and more of the light that passes through them. The largest ever built was 40-inches, but a reflector of the same size would significantly out perform it since the light doesn't pass through a reflector. My 15-inch is a reflector - add the video camera to it, and put it side-by-side with the Lowell 25-inch and I suspect my "little" scope would give the 25-inch monster a run for the money. But . . I love the idea of looking through that telescope. Just sitting behind something like that and looking up at the sky . . . well, it's almost exciting enough to get me to travel to Arizona ;-)

Posted by Greg Stone at May 6, 2008 02:12 AM Comments? Please email me: gstone@umassd.edu

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