MISFIT DOC: How Lowell Discovered Pluto in Japan and Other Errors

Percival Lowell’s notions of the Martian canals and his theories on the evolution of the solar system have been superseded by modern discoveries, but the more accurate location of a trans-Neptunian planet was validated in 1930, fifteen years after his death. Lowell calculated the position of Pluto mathematically by the perturbations in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. He was in the dark in this last and best piece of his work, whereas his earlier supposed “visual” observations of Mars turned out to be speculation, if not hallucination. What he saw he didn’t see and what he didn’t see he saw.

Presumably, the day may come when mankind will speak of the “geography” of the planets in the same manner as Renaissance man sought the geography of the newly discovered America. It would not be surprising to find that assumptions which prevailed in writing about the American voyage were also shared by erstwhile discoverers of planets, even in their mathematics, telescopes and computer photographs. So the search for the Northwest Passage might be analogous to the search for Martian “canals.”

The analogy between the Renaissance discoveries of the globe and those of our own day in space holds true in an uncertain fashion. The “discovery” of Mars is a case in point. Until the red planet is known empirically as a thing in itself, writing of its “discovery” amounts mainly to “invention”. Thus we may say that Mars has been invented by its “discoverers”: Kepler to Lowell to Viking. From the human standpoint, the status of actual knowledge gained about Mars from Viking is less than what Thomas Hariot, for example, got about Virginia after his 1585 expedition there, especially compared to what we know about America today. We must therefore emphasize the existence of Mars as both noumenon and phenomenon and realize that human knowledge of Mars must partake of the dual nature of the “fact.” Mars must appear palpably an invention until it has been much more than physically explored. In some possible future, when Mars is demythologized of its noumenal identity and becomes the sum total of its measurements, we shall be better able to ask of its originators an accounting of their myths and fables: Columbus, his India; Raleigh, his Eldorado; Lowell, his Mars.

Who can say whether the “discoverers” of new worlds are more misunderstanding than misunderstood; they rarely gain recognition in their lifetimes. Lowell’s subject is still interesting for its lingering upon the question of “civilizations” beyond earth. Even as the writers of Elizabethan England associated America with the gold age Elysium, Ophir and the Hesperides, so the “new world’ of mars could be cast in terms of “old’ analogies, extended until they become metaphoric, as the “canals” and “vegetation” of Mars.  If the American voyage applies to Mars, one would expect to find very little there in the way of “civilization,’ the pattern being that the voyagers are more “advanced” than their “discoveries.” The difference tween Mars and America is that Mars, being outside the earth, was never associated with the earthly paradigm, its discovery never heralded with traditional mythological comparisons. Owing to further differences, the Mars find is scientific, not poetic. Mars is an earth recreated in another place, with rivers, volcanoes, ice caps and even perhaps an atmosphere. That these features are a reality on Mars is beyond doubt, but the point is that the modern discoverer is as implicitly certain of the earthly analogy as the Renaissance discoverer was of the mythological one. Unfortunately for Lowell, and perhaps for his successors, we rather expect in the end to learn that Mars, like the American “India”, was not what we expected it to be.

Are Americans proud that one of their countrymen “discovered” Pluto? If his fellow citizens are proud of Lowell, it is evident that his fellow astronomers are not. At one time even his biography could not be found in the University of Texas Astronomy collection, having been cast out into the holding library. What explains this disapprobation for the man who saw in the dark? Lowell was not a “professional” astronomer. Of course, inner and outer planets were first sought by the unpaid Galileo, Herschel and Lowell. But it is too facile to believe that today’s hirelings are jealous, although some suggest that the similarity between Lowell’s calculations and Pluto’s orbit are more luck than skill. Others have found it “quite incredible that the agreement can be due to accident” (Biography of Percival Lowell, A. Lawrence Lowell, 197).

Another reason for Lowell’s unesteemed reputation might be his wide range of interests as classical scholar, botanist and world traveler, in addition to his mathematics and astronomy. His role as psychic investigator would be more damaging than these. At the age of 28 Lowell began a decade of involvement with Japan. During this period he wrote three books on Japan and one on Korea. Any suspicion regarding the purity of his research probably depends on his final effort, a book on esoteric Shintoism called Occult Japan or the Way of the Gods (1895). The rites of esoteric Shintoism consist of various “miracles” or purifying exercises. These are of two kinds: the “possessions of things,” such as walking barefoot over hot coals, being showered with boiling water and climbing a ladder of sword blades; and the “possessions of people” where the initiates undergo divine possession by their tutelary spirits. That Lowell practiced the art of “divine possessing” is evident from his third person narration “as the history of one earnest applicant for emptiness of mind from his first failure to his first success” (Occult Japan, 17). “At last, at the fifteenth sitting his perseverance was rewarded…possession had been like the unconscious dropping off to sleep” (Occult Japan, 177). The idea behind these activities was that the “god,” upon successive embodiments or “incarnations,” “has after birth to go through a natural process of development to reach its full capabilities” (Ibid., 185). A whole range of “gods” enter an individual thus prepared, but “a certain clique of gods usually frequent any one man” (Ibid., 190). Lowell’s Biography documents further Percival’s trial of the Shinto rites: “The walking over hot coals, at least, was even performed in his garden, and although he does not say so in his book, he did it himself, without, however, complete immunity to the soles of his feet” (57).

One suggestion as to the meaning of these events in Percival’s life comes in his brother’s statement that after ten years study of Japan, Lowell suddenly began his career in astronomy: “He has left us no statement of why he gave up Japan for astronomy” (Biography, 59). The overt reason is that he became interested in Schiaparelli’s “canali,” but as the reader already suspects, we will try and suppose another explanation.

First we must acknowledge that Lowell was not 100% correct in his calculations of Pluto’s orbit, but consider the difficulty under which he labored. In the age of computers the layman thinks anything is possible: if black hole, why not one day plant trees on comets, as one space scientist has proposed. Lowell’s brother has this comment of Percival’s accuracy: “Except for the eccentricity (of orbit) and the inclination which he declared it impossible to calculate, these results have proved as near as, with the uncertainty of the data, he could have expected” (Biography 200) The biographer gives additional details that document Lowell’s “rigorous analytic method.”

Well, you ask, what has it got to do with esoteric Shintoism and Japan? Nothing, if what you want is a nail in the wall from which to hang your picture of Percival Lowell. But in the shadowy regions of intuition, from which certain now fashionable discoveries have emerged, we know this. Lowell had a peculiar bent of mind for the unknown and out the way. He spent some time in satisfying his curiosity of psychic dimensions. Jung more than Plato suggests that what we discover and know, we only “remember,” as thoughts rise from the collective unconscious of “discoverers.” That Lowell was sensitive to such experiences is beyond doubt. Hence the notion arises that in his experiments in Japan Lowell unknowingly triggered the collective memory into revealing an inclination that, then unformed, later became the discovery of the tenth “planet.” That is, in short, that Lowell discovered Pluto in Japan.

Hard as that might be for the reader to swallow, further improbable evidence might be cited, but we should not tell the people too much! If you are entertained by it I take you by the hand. But here is the important thing. The genius of Lowell’s discovery is not what he found, but that he persisted in his following of shadowy inclinations and was able to demonstrate empirically what was only a bubble in his mind. Few men in the history of philosophy and science have done this. What began as an unformed notion changed to a glimmer in the eye, found expression as a mathematical explanation of imperfect data and was seen on a photographic plate. Whether Pluto is actually a planet or not (as some now speculate), there is no doubt that it has captivated the human imagination as one of the “signs of the heavens,” the only planet capable of changing its position in the solar system. For a short time Pluto’s orbit brings it inside that of Neptune.

Notions of Mars and Pluto were two big elements in the house of cards that Lowell built. And therein the science of discovery gains a good lesson. What you see with your eyes may be only an illusion, and what you see impalpably within, unformed and numinous, might lead to the charting of unknown worlds.


Lowell, Lawrence. The Biography of Percival Lowell. NY: Macmillan, 1935.

Lowell, Percival. Occult Japan. NY: Houghton, Mifflin, 1885.


Andrew Reiff studied voyages in New World Discoveries like "The Loss of the Golden Age," and in Encouragements for Such as Shall Have Intention to Be Undertakers in the Planting," which index his later writing.


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