Percival Lowell had lived a life that few could not envy. A Harvard graduate, he left the world of business for travel and spent much of the 1880s in the Far East. He served as a diplomat's aide and made a study of Korean and, more specifically, Japanese culture. From his trips to the region, he wrote three books: The Soul of the Far East (1888), Noto (1891), and Occult Japan (1894). In 1893, he decided to dedicate himself to astronomy, picking up where the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had left off with a study of canals on the surface of Mars. The next year, Lowell used his fortune to establish the observatory in Arizona that bears his name.
Through his study, Lowell determined sketches of the canals on Mars and wrote three more books: Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908). As the twentieth century began, Lowell's ideas of the canals as symbols of an intelligent Martian race led to less and less credit among the astronomical community. The dispassion weighed on him, and he turned toward further research to reestablish his name. Taking discrepancies in the orbit of Uranus, Lowell calculated that some other body must exist beyond the orbit of Neptune, an unfound planet he dubbed "Planet X." Despite laborious searches, nothing from the photographs of the heavens could be determined to be such a planet.
In 1916, Lowell's life seemed to have run out. The World War weighed as heavily on him as the sneers from fellow astronomers. He had believed so much in humanity and the drive of human progress; reports of hundreds of thousands of young men slain on battlefields seemed to disprove that. Stresses had built up into his system, perhaps directing him to an early end of life. But, in the early hours of November 12, an aide hurriedly approached Lowell with prints from the photographic plates taken that March and April with a distant dot that may have been his Planet X.
Reinvigorated, Lowell threw himself into research. The planet looked too small to genuinely affect the mass of Uranus and Neptune, which caused him to recalculate the planetary masses. When this new mathematical arrangement seemed to fit better than the standard model, Lowell published his results in 1917. While some of the astronomical community became persuaded, the overall opinion was against him. Rather than falling under pressure as he had before, Lowell broke with standards and decided that humanity as a whole was becoming corrupt. If progress were to be made, it would be by smaller groups of like-minded, imaginative mini-cultures. He decided that hope for the future lay not in the overpopulated nations of the world but in individual creativity.
Lowell began bringing influential scientists and writers (including his sister, Amy) to his observatory, creating a new community. Some whispered that he was building a scientific cult, but Lowell had given up on impressing his fellows. Instead, he gathered funding and built up the observatory into not only an astronomical facility, but a place for research in numerous fields.
In 1920, Lowell came across a front page article in The New York Times about a lecturer at Clark University believing he could reach the Moon by means of rocketry. Dr. Robert Goddard proposed sending meteorological instruments into the upper atmosphere and even flash powder to the dark side of the Moon, illuminating it for astronomical study. The day after the article, an editorial in The Times trounced Goddard's ideas and concluded that he was a fool who had forgotten "the relation of action and reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react—to say that would be absurd." Lowell contacted Goddard through his connections at Clark University (where he had received an honorary degree in 1909), the two bonded over Goddard's explanation of the fallacy believed to be from Newton's laws of motion. When Lowell secured funding for Goddard's experiments, the latter joined him at the Observatory.
In 1923, Lowell was informed of another controversial thesis, this by a young German student, Hermann Oberth, entitled Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen ("By Rocket into Planetary Space"). Lowell became enamored with traveling not only to the Moon, but Mars itself, and invited him to join Goddard’s research. Oberth, who also had been frowned upon by the academic communities as “utopian”, accepted Lowell's invitation. Lowell would later invite Konstantin Tsiolkovsky after widespread publications of the genius's earlier work, but the Russian would decline to move to Arizona, instead maintaining a rigorous correspondence until Lowell's death in 1930.
Lowell died from a stroke February 18, 1930, many said caused by overwork. Since the Crash of the stock market, funding had begun to dry up, and Lowell worked continuously to keep his society running. While the '30s would be lean times at the Observatory, the explosion of need for technological development as the United States entered World War Two gave them something of a blank check. It is believed that Lowell's efforts, combined with yet another war, enabled mankind to achieve space flight in 1948, establish the Lowell Lunar Colony in 1961, and launch the Lowell Ares Program, establishing a Martian outpost in 1983. By that time, however, it had become obvious that Lowell’s canals were only an optical illusion.
In reality, Percival Lowell died of a stroke on November 12. His research on Planet X would lead to the discovery of Pluto in 1930, its name being given partially because of Lowell's initials PL forming the first two letters. Lowell's observations of canals would be disproved in 1965 with the Mariner 4 probe's images, and Pluto would be demoted from planetary status in 2006.