Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Department of Science and Technology Studies


Percival Lowell's controversial hypothesis (1895) that Mars was inhabited by intelligent beings operating a global network of canals received self contradictory treatment in many basic astronomy textbooks and popularisations of the early and mid twentieth century. Though generally said to have had no scientific credibility, analysis of a large sample of texts reveals that it actually enjoyed a high level of overt and covert support, until cl965 when falsified by Mariner spaceprobes. This supposedly discredited hypothesis also continued to influence research programs up to the 1977 Viking Mars landers. Three main themes are explored to account for the anomalous strength and longevity of Lowell's influence and reputation: Lowell's rhetorical style, his personal committment, and the way his Martian hypothesis embodied and could be adduced to serve major concerns of his own and later eras.

Lowell's knowledge claims derived power from his use of the "Victorian sage" persona and mode of argument, which has not previously been identifed in scientific literature, reinforced by thematic links with the most influential literary sages. Lowell's intense committment to his astronomical theory is also related to its resolution of dilemmas apparent in his earlier Asian studies. This insight establishes a formerly missing link between these two main areas of his work.

Although the timeliness of the Martian canal hypothesis vis-a-vis the Panama canal has often been noted, it is here shown to embody far broader social and political concerns of the Theodore Roosevelt era— including aspects of international relations, and human and natural resource management. Finally, in the mid-twentieth century, space scientists and policy-makers deliberately refurbished and manipulated Lowell's legacy to win support for their programs.