This engaging and wide-ranging biography casts new light on the life and careers of Percival Lowell. Scion of a wealthy Boston family, elder brother of Harvard President Lawrence and poet Amy, Percival Lowell is best remembered as the astronomer who claimed that intelligent beings had built a network of canals on Mars. But the Lowell who emerges in David Strauss's finely textured portrait was a polymath: not just a self-taught astronomer, but a shrewd investor, skilled photographer, inspired public speaker, and adventure-travel writer whose popular books contributed to an awakening American interest in Japan.
Strauss shows that Lowell consistently followed the same intellectual agenda. One of the principal American disciples of Herbert Spencer, Lowell, in his investigations of Japanese culture, set out to confirm Spencer's notion that Westerners were the highest expression of the evolutionary process. In his brilliant defense of the canals on Mars, Lowell drew on Spencer's claim that planets would develop life-supporting atmospheres over time.
Strauss's charming, somewhat bittersweet tale is the story of a rebellious Boston Brahmin whose outsider mentality, deep commitment to personal freedom, and competence in two cultures all contributed to the very special character of his careers, first as a cultural analyst and then more memorably as an astronomer.
David Strauss's biography gives us the entire Percival Lowell. We learn of his mistresses, his Boston clubs, his visits to the exotic, romantic Orient and his attempt to make his mark as an adventure-travel author, and finally of his astronomy and the resultant feuds with the professional astronomical establishment. In Strauss's hands, Percival Lowell is a compelling figure, whose story provides a rich insight into the nature of Boston society and the Boston Brahmins at a time when New England culture was becoming overshadowed by the New York aristocracy. I'm convinced that this is an important book.
This well-tempered biography of the noted astronomer places Percival Lowell’s scientific and cultural pursuits in the context of his rebellion against the parochialism and increasing irrelevancy of the Boston Brahmin worldview… Strung like a harp, aloof, and confident to the point of arrogance…Lowell harvested little but ridicule from his crude hierarchy of races, his assertion that there was life on Mars, and his quest for Planet X… It would be easy to simply deride this blustering figure, but Strauss takes a harder, more fulfilling approach, appreciating Lowell’s ability to stir major scientific and cultural controversy while clarifying just why he was so often wrong.
In the history of planetary astronomy, Lowell will be always remembered for the cranky conviction that Mars had canals and, hence, intelligent life. Rather than view Lowell through the prism of his projects, Strauss portrays him as a sort of freelance repudiator, though still a psychological captive, of late-nineteenth-century Boston's wealthy circles...The biography opens a portal into Lowell's mind.
A good biography keeps two elements in delicate balance: what they did and why they did it. David Strauss...has got it exactly right in Percival Lowell...Strauss's gripping and erudite biography is a marvellous portrait of this American aristocrat and maverick of science, and his conflicts and achievements. They really don't make astronomers like that anymore.
In this biography David Strauss depicts a highly complex figure...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.
- 352 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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