In earlier columns here about the upcoming eclipse, we've talked about the nature of eclipses, how to view them, and some notable ones in history. We've also introduced the astronomers and educators who will be in Madras for the Lowell Observatory Solar Eclipse Experience, a two-day event centered at the Madras High School football stadium and adjacent Madras Performing Arts Center. But just what is Lowell Observatory and what goes on there?
One way to get answers to these questions is to head to the Performing Arts Center Wednesday, July 19, at 6 p.m. to hear a free presentation by Lowell Director Jeff Hall. Hall will introduce recent research into the discovery of planets around other stars, delving into some large-scale, thought-provoking questions such as, "Are we alone in the universe?" These topics get to the heart of Lowell Observatory and its mission of carrying out astronomical research and sharing the excitement of space with the public.
Wealthy Bostonian Percival Lowell founded the observatory in 1894, setting up shop in Flagstaff, Arizona, because of that community's dark skies and clear views of the heavens. He was initially interested in studying Mars and the possibility of intelligent life there. While much of his research was controversial, particularly that revolving around the so-called canals of Mars that he thought must have been built by some sort of intelligent life, he laid the foundation for one of the most storied astronomical research facilities in the world.
Perhaps the most important discovery at Lowell was Vesto Slipher's 1912 detection of the expanding nature of the universe. While Slipher's work dramatically changed astronomers' understanding of the cosmos — showing that the universe is much vaster and older than previously imagined — the observatory is probably most famous for Clyde Tombaugh's discovery of Pluto in 1930. This changed ideas about the size and makeup of our solar system, and also created a great deal of national pride in this icy, enigmatic world. Pluto continues to inspire interest from both scientists and the public, as evidenced by the overwhelming excitement centered around the New Horizons spacecraft's flyby of Pluto and its moons in 2015.
The Pluto discovery, and decades of further research on this planet, represents one of the distinct aspects of Lowell: the continuum of important research over long periods of time, punctuated by periodic singular discoveries. Since Tombaugh's aha moment, later generations of Lowell astronomers have continued to study Pluto and been involved in nearly every major subsequent discovery regarding that planet, from moons and an atmosphere, to the groundbreaking results from New Horizons, in which Lowell scientist Will Grundy served as the leader of the team studying the composition of Pluto's surface.
Grundy's work is just a sample of the research going on at Lowell today. Other astronomers study the galaxy near and far, ranging from comets and asteroids in our solar system and the sun's similarity to other stars, to the planets around other stars and the formation and evolution of far distant galaxies.
Lowell astronomers use many different instruments for this research, including its Discovery Channel Telescope, the fifth largest telescope in the continental United States and one of the most versatile and powerful instruments of its kind in the world. The scientists also use a variety of other telescopes from around the world, as well as an airborne telescope that flies aboard a modified Boeing 747 jet.
All this astronomical research is in itself significant, but add in Lowell's world-renowned public education efforts and the observatory's place as a leading scientific organization becomes palpable. This philosophy of outreach, like the science, dates back to Percival Lowell, who wrote in his 1906 book, Mars and its Canals: "To set forth science in a popular, that is, in a generally understandable, form is as obligatory as to present it in a more technical manner. If people are to benefit from it, it must be expressed to their comprehension." Lowell wrote several popular books about space and lectured widely, in many ways serving as a modern-day Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson.
This is the Lowell Observatory that will be in Madras for the eclipse, an organization of dedicated scientists and educators who delight in learning about the cosmos and sharing that knowledge and excitement with the public.