Imaginative Power and Percival Lowell

Percival LowellToday is one of those days when this year’s birthday posts with a single-person focus is hard because there are a number of cool people who I would like to talk about . There is, for example, cartoonist Al Jaffee, the Mad legend. Then there is the great comedy writer and creator of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, David Nobbs. And the surprisingly heterosexual songwriter Neil Sedaka is 75 today. But it is also the birthday of someone even more interesting—at least to me, today.

On this day in 1855, Percival Lowell was born. Now, let me say up front: he was a good astronomer. But there have been a lot of good astronomers and we don’t know their names. Lowell is known for some bad work that he did over a very long period of time. For fifteen years, he sat at his telescope looking at Mars, cataloging its canals. And these were no normal formations: Lowell was very clear that they could only have been created by an advanced intelligence.

The problem is that the advanced intelligence that created the canals were on the opposite end of the telescope from what he thought. There were no canals, natural or artificial, on Mars. No one really knows what Lowell saw, but the canals were nothing more than his own creation. To me, it’s very simple though. The human brain is little more than a pattern recognition system. If you look at noise for long enough, you will start to see patterns. This is why conspiracy theories become more believable the more you study them.

Lowell also spent years studying nonexistent features on the surface of Venus. But his career was far from a failure. He built an important observatory. And as Wikipedia puts it, “[H]is practice of building observatories at the position where they would best function has been adopted as a principle.” Astronomy is a greater science because of him.

Happy birthday Percival Lowell!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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