Magazine article Natural History

War of the Worldviews

Magazine article Natural History

War of the Worldviews

Article excerpt

A yearning for the "good old days" infects us all, even though such times never existed outside our reveries. The nostalgic longing may be universal, but modes of expression vary by culture and social class. We all know the stereotypes. Plebeian Pete wishes that he could smoke, drink, and eat red meat without raising eyebrows, while Patrician Percival laments that he just can't find faithful and obedient servants any more.

Stereotypes work by unfair exaggeration to be sure, but they often build upon a kernel of reality. So consider this statement written in 1906 by a true Patrician Percival: "The latter minister to the former with unconscious service all the time, and with no more arrogant independence than do our domestics generally nowadays." They don't make 'em more patrician than Percival Lowell, brother of Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell and of poet Amy Lowelland scion of Boston's great family in the celebrated ditty:

And this is good old Boston, The home of the bean and the cod, Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots And the Cabots talk only to God.

In science, as in so many other human institutions, you don't have to be rich to succeed, but it sure doesn't hurt. Charles Darwin inherited a considerable fortune and then increased his stake by shrewd investments. He understood perfectly well the intellectual benefits thus acquired, primarily in freedom and time, and wrote in his autobiography: "I have had ample leisure from not having to earn my own bread." But Alfred Russel Wallace, the codiscoverer of natural selection, grew up penniless, began his professional life as a schoolteacher, and always lived frugally by his wits as a writer and collector. He probably matched Darwin in intelligence but never had the time for sustained theorizing and experiment.

Percival Lowell (1855-1916) spent his youthful Wanderjahre on several grand tours of Asia, leading to books with such representative titles as The Soul of the Far East and Occult Japan. He then decided to devote his life to astronomy and began with an ultimate bang (for mucho bucks) by building a private observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. There he did much useful work, including the prediction of a planet beyond Neptune, eventually found at the observatory by Clyde Tombaugh and named Pluto in 1930.

But a lifetime of good work can be wiped out by one unforgettable error. Such a fate seems especially unfair when the understandable lapse of a moment erases the memory of a fine career (Bill Buckner's gimpy legs or Pee Wee Herman's harmless impropriety). But when the error represents an idee fixe, relentlessly pursued over years of research and volumes of writing, then the promoter has built his own coffin. At least Percival Lowell fell before a grand enemy, the god of war himself-the planet Mars.

In the late 1870s, the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli had described the Martian surface as crisscrossed by long, thin, straight features that he called canali, meaning "channels" in Italian (with no attribution of causality), not "canals" (with implications of construction by sentient beings). Lowell fell under the spell of these nonexistent phenomena and spent the rest of his career in increasingly elaborate attempts to map and interpret "these lines [that] run for thousands of miles in an unswerving direction, as far relatively as from London to Bombay, and as far actually as from Boston to San Francisco" (all quotations come from Lowell's book: Mars and Its Canals, Macmillan, 1906).

Lowell eventually decided that the lines must be true canals, and he developed an ever more elaborate and poignant interpretation. He viewed Mars as a once-verdant world, now drying up, with polar icecaps as the only remaining source of substantial water. The canals, he decided, must represent a planetary system of irrigation, built by higher (or at least highly cooperative) beings as a last-ditch effort to funnel meltwaters of the icecaps to a parched and more equatorial civilization. …

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