Get Outta Town: Visit the mausoleum of Percival Lowell, who mapped Mars’ nonexistent canals

by Nick Gonzales

Northern Arizona has all sorts of cool natural wonders — the red rock buttes of Sedona, Monument Valley, Meteor Crater, the Petrified Desert, that Grand Canyon thing. But once you get bored of marveling at Earth’s surface, one of the most fascinating places to go is Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory.

Located above the city at over 7,000 feet, the complex has a bunch of interactive exhibits, educational scientific programs, and telescopes they’ll let you use to gaze out into the cosmos. It’s also a stellar place to people watch, as it’s an active research facility with astronomers coming and going all the time.

But while visitors head from the museum to the telescopes, one structure tends to go overlooked: the mausoleum of the observatory’s founder, Percival Lowell — a man who, in devoting his life to something that doesn’t exist, advanced human understanding of the universe considerably.

A wealthy Bostonian born in 1855, Lowell studied math, ran a cotton mill, and traveled extensively in Asia, eventually serving as a foreign secretary and counselor for a Korean diplomatic mission to the United States. But then in the 1890s, he read French spiritualist and science writer Camille Flammarion’s “The Planet Mars and Its Conditions of Habitability” and “Life on Mars,” a book featuring the Martian observations of Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877. The latter detailed a complex system of canals that Schiaparelli had observed on Mars’ surface, and upon reading about them, Lowell was obsessed.

The astronomer figured that the existence of a system of canals implied a deliberately-constructed irrigation or transportation system – and thus the Martians who built them. So he moved out to Arizona, built the observatory that still bears his name, and began mapping every canal he could see on the red planet.

Astronomy has advanced considerably since Lowell’s day, to the point where we’ve actually sent robots to Mars, and it turns out the canals were just an optical illusion. There’s no liquid water on the planet’s surface, and definitely, no Martians as far as we can tell. Oops. (Lowell also tried to map Venus – which has an opaque atmosphere that renders the surface impossible to see from Earth — describing it as having spoke-like features that radiated out from a central dark spot. Scientists later figured out that Lowell was looking at an image of his own eye.)

Lowell may have been misguided when it comes to Mars, and Venus, but his study of astronomy and the construction of the observatory actually paid off. During the last decade of his life, he shifted his focus to the search for Planet X, a proposed planet in our solar system beyond the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. Lowell died in 1916, having never found that hypothetical planet. In 1930, Clyde Tombaugh, another astronomer searching for Planet X at Lowell Observatory, discovered Pluto. (Sure, it’s no longer considered a full-fledged planet, but it was a major discovery nonetheless.)

Meanwhile, Lowell’s idea that an alien had built canals across Mars’ desert, maybe even dying, surface influenced pop culture for more than a century. H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” and Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles” both owe at least part of their existence to Lowell. The astronomer’s mausoleum on the observatory campus, which features a glass dome through which its occupant can gaze out upon the stars, is even alluded to in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” series and the (unfairly maligned) 2012 movie.

As a result of the COVID-19 epidemic, Lowell Observatory is currently going through a phased reopening process, so check what’s open before visiting it.

Nick Gonzales

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