“What we see hints at the existence of beings who are in advance of, not behind us, in the race of life,” Percival Lowell wrote in The Atlantic in 1895, in an article excerpted on page 80 of this issue. Lowell, an astronomer, had glimpsed through the newly powerful telescopes of his era what appeared to be “a network of fine, straight dark lines” on the surface of Mars, lines that reminded him of irrigation canals, canals that seemed to be evidence of an advanced race, maybe “intelligent beings, although physically they be utterly unlike us, more goblins than men or animals.”
Long before the Curiosity rover began trundling about on Mars last summer—in fact, by the early 20th century—other astronomers concluded that the lines were just an optical illusion. But Lowell was no fool. A mathematician, businessman, and expert on Japan, among other subjects, he was the first person to establish a permanent observatory at a remote, elevated location (in Flagstaff, Arizona), and, believing that some as-yet-unseen “Planet X” was orbiting in the neighborhood of Uranus and Neptune, he embarked on a search that led to the discovery of Pluto, whose name was derived in part from his initials.
Even Lowell’s canals turned out to have their value, igniting the imaginations of many others, including Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury. As for the search for extraterrestrial life, it, of course, goes on. Having upended conventional wisdom by discovering scores of planets in other solar systems, the astronomer Geoff Marcy, one of the Brave Thinkers we feature in this issue, has turned his attention to seeking out new civilizations. If he doesn’t find anything, he says, “I won’t think of that as failure; I’ll think of it as information. We humans may realize that we are carrying the ball for intelligent life in this sector of the Milky Way.” Michael Bloomberg described a similar experimental approach in our interview on page 66, observing that even a government initiative that hits a dead end makes a contribution, “because we know we don’t have to go down that path again.” But, he adds, “in the press, they call it failure. And so people are unwilling to innovate, unwilling to take risks.”