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
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
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
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.