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Friday, February 19, 2016

HALL OF MIRRORS

I think it a profound insight that all telescopes involve mirrors. In 1846 this idea was stumbled upon by the obsessive-compulsive painter Alvan G. Clark, when he realized there was more money to be made in selling  telescopes to rich people than in just painting portraits of rich people. And since both involved selling positive self-images, Alvan dropped his brush and took up the polishing rag. It was said this self taught optician could feel imperfections in the glass lenses through his thumb while polishing them. For over a half a century Alvin and his sons ground magnificent telescopes for rich clients who saw funding observatories as grand monuments to their own intellectual beneficence. Five times Alvin Clark and Sons produced lenses for the largest refraction telescopes in the world. But it is another sad truth that making optical telescopes is an ephemeral art form, since glass over time all lenses tell lies. Even a Clark
One of Alvan Clark's most enthusiastic customers was Mr. Percival Lowell, whose mommy gave him a 2 1/4 inch Clark on his fifteenth birthday. Astronomy was the kind of hobby mother and son could share atop their Brookline mansion. At his father's insistence Percival went into business in Japan (above - the tall one without the hat). But he always returned to his first love; astronomy. And as  the end of the 19th century approached, Percy was attracted by the approach of Mars. 
The more people looked at the red planet, the more it looked like earth. Kepler was the first to realize that Mars was a neighbor of ours. But it was the Dutchman Christiaan Huygens, who drew the first detailed maps of the planet's surface. Then in September of 1877, as the orbits of Earth and Mars converged, Giovanni Schiaparelli used a new telescope and saw what looked like mountain ranges and plains and long mysterious grooves which criss-crossed the planet. He described the grooves in Italian as “canalii”,  a word meaning a channel, or path.  It is sad to point out here, that although Percival Lowell spoke fluent Japanese, he did not speak Italian. 
In 1896, Percival retired from the business world and built his own world class observatory in the mountains, 7,180 feet above Flagstaff, Arizona, atop a peak he named Mars Hill.  Here, for $20,000 (half a million today) Percival installed a 24 inch Clark refracting telescope. Every summer night for the next 23 years, Percival Lowell (above) sat at the bottom of his telescope, observing Mars. During the days he slept in the 24 room mansion he also built on Mars Hill. Being born rich has its advantages, and Percival would have been a fool if he had not taken advantage of his advantages.
And what he saw through the eyepiece of his expensive magical tube was amazing. He saw canals - real canals - more than 180 of them, some of them 4,000 miles long. And he wondered what sort of creatures had constructed such a massive, intricate irrigation system. “Quite possibly, “ he wrote, “such Martian folk are possessed of inventions of which we have not dreamed...Certainly what we see hints at the existence of beings who are in advance of, not behind us, in the journey of life.” 
Percival wrote three books, “Mars”, “Mars and its Canals”, and “Mars as the Abode of :Life”. Each and every book became a best seller. He inspired H.G. Wells to write “War of the Worlds”, as well as inspiring Edgar Rice Burrows, who besides the “Tarzan” series, wrote 13 adventure books centering on Mars. By the year his third book was published, in 1907, Percival Lowell was recognized as the world's expert on the planet Mars. And then, almost over night, Percival's magical red world was deflated by his doppelganger, Mr. George Hale.
George Hale also came from a rich Boston family. But where Percival's father had insisted he attend business school, George's father had sent him to MIT to become a professional astronomer. And in 1908 George opened the lens cap on his new 60” reflector telescope in his new observatory atop California's 5,700 foot high Mount Wilson. And almost the first thing George peered at was Mars, where he found...no canals. Not a one. No matter how hard he looked. It is alleged that George saw an elf in his bedroom, but he saw no canals on Mars.
The photographic proof was conclusive. What Percival had seen as canals proved, when seen through a  newer, bigger, telescope,  proved to be just an optical illusion, or maybe the blood vessels in the back of Percival's own eye.  Percival had a nervous breakdown. And when he recovered he sought to re-establish his reputation. He took up the search for the the last great mystery in the night sky, the powerful conundrum of Planet X.
According to Percival's own mathematics, there was something very odd about the planets Neptune and Uranus. They were too big, their orbits were odd, Neptune was spinning on its side and they both wobbled. It looked to Percival as as if there had to be another planet further out from the sun, tugging at Uranus and Neptune. He called his suspect Planet X. Percival even calculated Planet X's mass, and he knew exactly where it had to be in the sky, 40 times further out from the sun than the earth.
For ten years Percival and his assistants – okay, mostly his assistants – scoured photographs of the night sky, searching for the tell-tale movement in the star field that would herald the discovery of Planet X. Twice the camera on Percival's 12” Clark took pictures of the moving X.  But the humans who had to examine each one of the thousands of photographs, failed to notice the one dot that had moved slightly. And then,  in 1916, at the age of sixty-one, Percival Lowell suffered a stroke and died. He was buried next to his beloved 12” Clark atop Mars Hill.  But thanks to Percival's fortune, the search for Planet X continued.
In 1930 Clyde Tombaugh found Planet X. And since he was being paid by Percival's endowment, and still using Percival's 12” Clark, Planet X was named using Percival Lowell's initials – PLuto. And isn't it amazing that Planet X became the official IX planet in the solar system? You don't often get to use Roman Numerals in a joke.
Ah, but things were about to get even more amazing. With the refinement of observations of the outer planets a number of new great mysteries appeared in the night sky, as they always do. The more you know the less you know, you know.  You know?
The first thing astronomers realized they did not know was why  two of those three cold blobs of rock and ice circling far out from the Sun– Neptune and Uranus - were so darn massive, too massive to have been formed so far out at the edge of the spinning disc that eventually became the solar system. In 2005 the mystery was solved (we think) at the University of Nice, France.  Neptune and Uranus, said the French astronomers, had actually formed in the inner solar system, and out of rock, like the Earth, Venus and Mars.
Four billion years ago the newly formed gas giants Jupiter and Saturn had turned the inner solar system into pool table on the break -  with the still molten planets and asteroids slamming and careening into and off of each other. This gravitational pin ball game had pulled the moon into a collision with the Earth, and allowed its capture. It had ground up the rocks trying to form a planet into the asteroid belt. And it had flung Uranus and Neptune out of their formation orbits and into their current orbits, leaving behind a lot of oddities as they swerved out into the edge of our solar system.
And that left Pluto. The more people looked at the guardian of the outer realms the odder it looked. Better telescopes, including one in earth orbit, showed it to have less than two tenths of 1% of the mass of the Earth, and to be only about half the size of our moon. That was too small to have perturbed the orbits of Neptune or Uranus. In fact it was even too small to be classified as a planet.
On August 24, 2006 the International Astronomical Union struck Pluto from the list of planets and gave it the new title of "134340 Pluto, dwarf planet".  It seems that for all of Percival Lowell's careful calculations, and for all of Clyde Tombaugh's perseverance, and for all the power of Alvan Clark's thumb,  finding Planet X right where it was supposed to be was...just a coincidence.  It was the human mind which mistook blind luck for a deep cosmological insight,  just as the swelling in the blood vessels behind Percival Lowell's eye had built the canals of Mars.
It makes me wonder how we can ever really be certain we are certain of anything. And it seems that no matter how big our telescopes become, we will always looking into a mirror.
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