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Astronomical Outsider

Marc Rothenberg

Percival Lowell: The Culture and Science of a Boston Brahmin. David Strauss. xiv + 333 pp. Harvard University Press, 2001. $47.50.

The name of Percival Lowell is familiar to most scientists with even a passing knowledge of American astronomy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many link it with the debates over the reality of complex systems of canals on Mars and the suggestion that such systems implied the existence of intelligent life on that planet. Others may associate it with the painstaking photographic search for Planet X beyond Neptune, undertaken at the observatory in Arizona named for Lowell, which hosted research in planetary astronomy when that field was unfashionable. Famous and controversial, Lowell was a pioneer who alienated fellow astronomers with his enthusiasm for mass media. His writing seemed more at home in the Sunday newspaper than in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

In this biography, David Strauss depicts a highly complex figure, "a Brahmin with a difference." Lowell was a member of the generation of the Boston cultural elite who, in response to the challenges of the new industrial wealth of Chicago and New York and the need to demonstrate their relevance for American culture, became cosmopolitan and innovative. They played harder than their ancestors but did not forsake moneymaking, although they did find new arenas for their investments. Lowell was in many ways typical of this generation of rebels trying to find their place in a rapidly changing world.

Yet members of his generation were in some ways conservative. At a time of increasing specialization and professionalization, they still valued formal education as a broad foundation for future endeavors, rather than as preparation for a specific vocation. They pursued multiple careers after college: Astronomy was Lowell's third career, following a stretch in the family investment business and years of travel in the Far East. Both of his earlier ventures were highly successful. He made a considerable amount of money during his first career, and the books and lectures based on his experiences in the Far East led to his recognition as a leading Euro-American interpreter of Japanese life.

To be a successful polymath was not unusual for a Harvard graduate of the 1870s. But by the end of the 19th century, when Lowell turned to astronomy, it was becoming increasingly common for scientists to be specialists. He chose to enter the field just as American astronomy was undergoing a rapid change. The late 19th century was marked by the rise of astrophysics, "factory" observatories and a national astronomical society dominated by professionals. Lowell's broad preparation and outlook were out of fashion. Lowell Observatory was small, was not equipped with state-of-the-art apparatus and had an idiosyncratic research program. In Strauss's apt phrase, Lowell was "an instant outsider."

Strauss does three things quite well in this biography. First, he successfully argues that the major events in Lowell's life, including the founding of Lowell Observatory, can all be seen as the responses of a Brahmin to the crisis confronting his class. Second, he demonstrates that there were a number of distinct continuities in Lowell's life despite his career changes. Throughout he was a businessman, an enthusiastic and observant traveler, and a skilled prose writer. His embrace of Herbert Spencer's philosophy molded his study of both ethnology and astronomy. Third, Strauss's analysis of the internal and external factors at play in Lowell's astronomical career is illuminating.

By approaching Lowell as a figure in American cultural history, rather than just a participant in the history of science, Strauss has enriched our understanding of both fields.—Marc Rothenberg, Smithsonian Institution

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