Astronomy Briefly

brought to you by Duane Dunkerson


 Article Archives

Contact Me


Percival Lowell, The Culture and Science of a Boston Brahmin by David Strauss, Harvard University Press, 2001.
reviewed by Duane Dunkerson

Mr. Osterbrock in a recent "Sky and Telescope" review found, Percival Lowell, The Culture and Science of a Boston Brahmin by David Strauss, faulty at some points but in the end he did not find enough faults to discount a closing recommendation.

I do not agree with Mr. Osterbrock as I do not recommend the book. Strauss wants to make Lowell whole again. Lowell, the author states, has been segmented for study by academicians. To overcome this segmentation, the author does not wish to chronicle the subject of his book but rather presents themes and topics about Lowell in three categories. Strauss bins Lowell according to how versatile Lowell was, how much Lowell absorbed of Spencer, and how the Battle of the Martian Canals played out.

Lowell was versatile in the travel books he wrote and in his study of the trance states of Japanese. Lowell displayed more versatility in his mathematical hunt for Planet X and, because he saw canals on Mars, in his resolute fostering of ideas about a superior Martian civilization. Yet more versatility was shown by Lowell in his taking up what he needed from Spencer's notions about evolution as much more than what Darwin's evidence could sustain.

Lowell did sustain Spencer on many points so that one of these points could be the start of what we are. Picking a point in time and then letting the clock tick in a progressive manner resulted in planets, life, intelligence, and humankind. At least a few of humankind had seen the Martian canals and Spencerisms guided Lowell in his interpretation of what he saw on Mars. The canals meant life, Martian life, and beings with intelligence, with highly organized and superior attributes. Lowell was versatile in that he found and he supported material across disciplines to maintain his Spencerian views.

Thus the Martians were derived from Lowell's Spencerisms and Lowell accepted the notion of our origin from a gaseous nebular mass. Progress then ensued and, because of progress, humankind eventuated. Progress and the cosmos were causative entities and a succession of phenomena as well as the totality of phenomena. The canals were one of these phenomena.

If the canals did not exist, there was no other evidence for Martians. Once sighted, those canals were tenaciously supported by Lowell as the indisputable evidence for a civilization on Mars. In talks, scientific publications, and in the popular press the irrepressible and versatile Lowell never wavered in his championing the existence of canals on Mars.

The canals, his versatility, and Spencer's influence are not categories of separation. Each of the three categories has elements of the other two in it. To uphold the contrary, to say that Lowell is to be found and understood in these categories is incorrect. Too little respect for Lowell other than as to what purpose can be made of him to fit these categories, does not make Lowell whole again. At the least, it would be necessary to take up a transcategorical or intercategorical approach to Lowell. To understand the categories can be done, with Lowell as exemplary material, but Lowell, as a human being, is not dealt with in this book. Strauss' categorical imperative, so to speak, prevents him from getting to the biographical subject matter

The author has it that Lowell's life only makes sense against the background of the Boston Brahmin crisis. They were in crisis, says the author, because their American influence was ending. The author has it that Lowell decided to revitalize the Brahmins by not supporting their tasks. He avoided women early on and involved himself in men's clubs that had alcohol and drugs for gaiety and intellectual achievement to combat the Brahmin repression that functioned by means of work and family. Lowell, then, could modernize the ethos of the Brahmin hegemony.

You do encounter "ethos", "hegemony", "crisis", "ideology", "culture", "science", "psychic dynamic" and "community" in this book. The author speculates about Lowell as a psychological subject and supports contentions frequently with "no doubt" and "without question". Strauss, in so doing, may draw on internetic journalism. This is a form of information presentation that is free of interactive standards for evidence. There is no one to stop you. You can put forth what you wish. Then too there is no one to stop someone else relaying this information.

Strauss pushes the psychology of Lowell to the point that he affirms there was a psychic dynamic within the family brought on by the closeness of Percival and his mother. His father was impersonal and hostile to idleness, and obsessed with work and family. When Lowell challenged current values, a psychic toll was exacted upon him. Lowell's individualism kept him from savoring his adventures and Lowell was driven to concoct a distinctive identity. The Establishment of American astronomy became, the author asserts, the psychological equivalent of Lowell's father.

This establishment was composed of factory observatories that the author early in the book places into an existence implying monolithic characteristics. Yet these factory observatories were only starting to come into existence as Big Science, he later asserts. These factory observatories were the flagships of Hale, Frost, Campbell, Pickering, and Newcomb. Mt. Wilson (Hale) and Yerkes (Frost) were actually established after Lowell began his activities at Flagstaff.

The Establishment supposedly found Lowell a burden to them because they were concerned with scientific truth and Lowell's canals threatened the entire scientific enterprise. I rather think Harvard lost Flagstaff like we lost China and that sting of loss led to repressive countermeasures. Also Lowell's independence at Flagstaff could not be readily refuted and silenced as he was financially independent. There is one mention in the book of personal animosity towards Lowell and that by Hale. The mention is not front and center and does not occur until page 222. Late in the book it is put to us that Lowell made a laughingstock of himself and his observatory.

The source of this deplorable characterization of Lowell is not expressly cited. Yet I think the source lies in the confrontation Strauss so often finds between Lowell and the American astronomy Establishment. This confrontation has on one side the generalist as represented by Lowell and the specialists on the other side.

Lowell saw science as a cultural activity, partaking of generalism. Generalism, as applied to science, meant cross-disciplinary activity. Lowell, as the originator of planetology, brought into planetology material from different scientific disciplines. The best the specialists could do would be to bring together two specialists for collaboration.

It isn't that you couldn't cross the disciplines, it was that they didn't want you to do it. After all, Lowell did do it. The disciplines appear to be self-sufficient. On the contrary, there is a unity threading some or all. If the specialists talk only to themselves in island labs or observatories, no persuasion is ever needed. If no persuasion is ever needed, then specialization is all there is to knowledge. Is astronomy a speciality? Does it have subspecialities? Do they? Where does the regression stop? Isn't it better that it stop within Nature? What, then, is Nature? What is science? What is it without Nature?

Without Nature then science (in the title of this book) cannot be maintained and without research science can not advance. Researchers were once of an elite and unlike the power mad, patent-conscious, and money-driven individuals of today. Researchers of yesteryear knew research could be done by a select few. Most researchers today have opted into a very big game. Like Cocteau's Thomas they are imposteurs. They play a role apart from themselves because there is money to be had.

In Lowell's day, before Big Science, there was no Big Money. He, in any case, was wealthy. He had not need for monetary sources apart from himself. He conducted science as an adventurous endeavor. According to Strauss this is a grievous error and was offensive to the Establishment. Lowell, I imply, insisted on having science practiced by human beings. No doubt and without question only cultured individuals, that is human beings, can carry on such an activity. Nowdays, if one accepts the common terms, "humans" are everywhere but human beings are nearly extinct. Nature as analyzed by science provides no support for humanity. The only earthly support for humanity is humanity. Historically as well as philosophically this has been true for a long time.

In the history of astronomy, observations made and recorded by machines are of relatively recent vintage. Now what is seen by someone at a telescope will not be accepted for analysis unless a machine can verify what was seen. In Lowell's day the sensory dictatorship of the machine was emerging. Before his time and during his time what was found and studied was by an eye assisted by a telescope. The emphasis was not on the instrumentation but on what was seen. The telescope was an aid to understanding. There had to be someone there at the telescope. It was what I, they said, saw. Sometimes the observations were difficult to complete. The scene before you could be fleeting and optically flimsy.

Strauss ridicules those who saw the canals by mention of what the janitor saw. What he saw was neither fleeting nor flimsy. The janitor at the Lowell Observatory stepped up to the telescope one night and saw the canals of Mars. Lowell thought this to be splendid. It was that the atmosphere above Flagstaff was favorable, the telescope superb, and little, if any, training needed to be undergone to see these obvious canals. If Lowell and the janitor saw what they said they saw and the tests for illusions were negative and others saw what they saw which was not what Lowell and the janitor saw and they were subject to no illusions, then why didn't Lowell and the janitor see what they saw or they see what Lowell and the janitor saw? Was Lowell a liar? They never went to Flagstaff to find out.

Those who remained distant were thought of by Lowell as obscurantists performing in an enterprise perpetuated by those paid to produce results. These specialists on their way to making a fashion out of science, lacked imagination as Lowell would have it. The imagination was critical to science, thought Lowell. Whatever it is that the imagination sparks can burn via creativity. Creativity is a self-proclaimed fount of culture, ("culture", also in the title of this book), stolen from God but which now supports mainly what can be bought and sold. And do it so it yields a return. Buy low, sell high. Our consciousness is formed by property. The 10 and 20 dollar people now live without acceptance of death in a hierarchy of purchases and enabled to go on by the fantastically slight chance of the Big Jackpot for one or two, no more. These vulgarians rule our major sources of information and root out sense and sensibility at every turn. With money, money changes everything.

Unlike the Kantian definition of culture, we have no limits for monetary activity, slight responsibility and no purposeful aesthetic. We do without liberality, nobility, patriotism, and virtue. They are so out of fashion. They functioned in opposition to economic man. Commercial society had its atom - the bourgeois, an enemy of culture. Now we have a technological society and the techeois with no respect for respect, no morals for morality, and no authority to reject authority. What made the old bourgeois so disgusting was the pretentiousness, a lie about morality, for example being of no consequence if substantial money was involved. The techeois don't bother to lie.

Lowell didn't lie. He aspired to an achievement stunning in its implications if true. The canals of Mars could have been dimly seen, in reddish hues, encased in translucent segments stretched into distant threads, taut as the thinly flowing water, humming at great velocity to substations and lowered by means of repeated gentle inclines into pools. Two atoms, the simplest and one moderately complex. Together beyond counting in practical shrines at Martian oases. Had the Martians existed they may have practiced real science and true culture and been friends of Lowell. But Lowell lost the Battle of the Canals. No canals were there. The implied civilization died with Lowell. This Spencerian, versatile and a canalist, imagined and studied and promoted a beautiful idea. It could not be sustained. He was reviled, drawn and microscopically quartered to psychological trifles piled at the stake to be a burnt offering to categorization.













Copyright © 2004
by Duane Dunkerson

All Rights Reserved





If you wish,
send me
telling me what
you think about
these articles,
etc. Also if
you have a
question relating
to astronomical
matters, I can
answer it
or refer you.



Current Projects

   — TLP
   — Canals of Mars
   — New telescope