Sole Trustee of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona
Grandnephew of Founder, Percival Lowell
Percival Lowell held the belief that if you hire really good people, give them the best facilities, and turn them loose to do their research, they will discover and learn amazing things.
By Heidi Legg
Boston is a city steeped in legacy and family foundations. Last year alone 15,000 Massachusetts residents made over a million dollars, according to the Boston Globe, and six Massachusetts residents made the 2016 Forbes billionaire list. It is a city that spurred the social leadership movement where foundations abound, with schools like Harvard Business School now offering a Social Enterprise Initiative.
Throughout American history there has always been a tension between philanthropy as privately funded (often underwritten by tax write-offs) referred to as noblesse oblige versus philanthropy as the responsibility of all citizens using our tax base (orchestrated by the government and underwritten by tax dollars). Critics of noblesse oblige fear the power that wealthy individuals and private institutions have to shape philanthropy, while critics of state-sponsored philanthropy fear that the government isn’t very effective at social welfare and getting it done.
This interview is two-fold: A look into one family's dedication to pure research in astronomy and the creation of family legacy.
In this effort, we decided to study how one family legacy has succeeded. Percival Lowell, a great mathematician, businessman, and astronomer, founded the Lowell Observatory in 1894 in Flagstaff, Arizona while fueling speculation that canals on Mars pointed to intelligent life. He was vocal, publishing a series of controversial articles in the Atlantic Monthly and in his 1895 book Mars, An Abode of Life. Percival started the search for Pluto and the Lawrence Lowell Telescope, funded by his brother, was used by Clyde Tombaugh in his discovery of Pluto in 1930.
Born into an aristocratic family in Boston, Percival studied mathematics at Harvard in the 1870s and helped run the family’s large business enterprises. His maternal grandfather was Abbott Lawrence, a textile manufacturer and founder of the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts. The city of Lowell, Massachusetts was named after Francis Cabot Lowell, a leading figure in bringing the Industrial Revolution to the United States. Percival's brother, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, served as President of Harvard University from 1909-1933. So how did a family of this prominence make an impact and leave a legacy for society that lives on with bitter infighting, squandered funds, and muddled mission?
W. Lowell Putnam, following the rules left by his great-grand uncle upon his death in 1916, is the sole trustee of the observatory and the fifth trustee ever, preceded by his father, Bill Putnam, Uncle (Michael) and grandfather (Roger) and cousin (Guy Lowell.) I sat down with Putnam to learn how the family Trust has worked so successfully over 100 years, how the Lowell Observatory continues its mission for pure research, discuss new discoveries astronomers have seen this month, and learn about their recent partnership with the Discovery Channel.
What do you value most about your ancestor Percival Lowell, born in Cambridge in 1855?
Percival was one of the leaders in establishing America's preeminence in scientific research and that transition happened at the end of the 1800s and into the early 1900s. He was willing to put his own money into building the institution and facilities to establish a culture of great academic freedom. He held the belief that if you hire really good people, give them the best facilities, and turn them loose to do their research, they will discover and learn amazing things.
After graduating from Harvard, he traveled widely in his youth to Syria and the Far East. Why did he return to focus on astronomy?
He was a curious person, read widely, had various interests, and obviously a very high IQ. Having spent the time in Japan and Korea, he became a globalist and then looked beyond that to say, ‘this is us here on earth and what else?” I think there was this approach of Mars he was observing that was coming on with Schiaparelli’s work talking about the Canali. He was also somewhat of a late bloomer in life. He finally found a passion on which he really wanted to spend the rest of his life: astronomy and the understanding of our solar system. We always ask, ‘Is there somebody else out there?’ and he was very much interested in trying to find that answer.
His interpretation of Schiaparelli’s word ‘canali’ – to mean 'canals' rather than 'channels' – for him indicated that there was an intelligent force that decided to shape that canal, to draw it. From here, Percival decided to pursue intelligent life as a theory. I think he pursued it a little too far, but he was also exciting the American public about the possibility of life and intelligence elsewhere in our solar system. It wasn't until ten years after his death that we finally discovered the Expanding Universe and started to realize that there was so much more out there.
And after he died, scientists at the Lowell Observatory discovered Pluto and it is said that Percival Lowell’s initials were superposed for the planetary symbol. What happened next?
Pluto was discovered in 1930, but beyond the discovery, Percival talked about academic freedom and he supported Vesto Slipher, the director of the observatory who was one of the astronomers studying the radial velocity of these things called spiral nebulae which we now know are distant galaxies. At the time, somebody thought maybe they were planets further out that were starting to shape themselves. There were a lot of different theories and Slipher’s work, starting with the first paper he published in 1912 at the American Astronomical Society meetings to a standing ovation, showed that these were actually moving faster in different directions than any theories had accounted. Hubbell admitted later on in life, when we had the letter from him, that it was Slipher’s work that gave Hubble the basis for the theory of the Expanding Universe.
H.G. Wells called your great-grand-uncle a friend and “very convincing” around Martian civilization and the canals. His theories about Mars and water showed up in both War of the Worlds and Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.
And Edgar Rice Burroughs.
How do you see Lowell’s influence in popular culture, with scientists, sci-fi writers?
Percival was an outspoken and very popular speaker. He was sort of like the Carl Sagan of his time, promoting these ideas and exciting people like Burroughs and Wells to write science fiction. Then, if you turn around and look at the early engineers and scientists behind NASA and you ask them who were their influences, they will often mention in their biographies about the influence of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs having inspired them to go into these fields. There is this generational back and forth: scientist inspires writer, writer inspires next generation of scientist. People look at these things and get excited about them and then go pursue them.
How was Percival respected and popular back in the 1900s?
I definitely want to differentiate: he was respected in the popular culture but the scientific community was a little bit bothered by him because he was rich, well educated, but an amateur. They couldn't stop him and he built his own observatory. It's not like they could deny him access to the sky and, at the time, he challenged the scientific community. There are those who say, ‘Well, he was a crackpot,’ but he really brought the conversation to the public and since he had the standing, education, and good credentials and because he was very articulate, he was successful. A philosophy of his that he expressed often in his writings was that if you are doing science and yet cannot explain it to the general public in a way that involves and engages them – then you're really not doing good science.
He insisted that science be accessible, understandable and exciting, along with producing good research.
Creating the Lowell Observatory in 1894, one can understand the excitement in those early days. Given technological advances today, how do you stay relevant?
Percival bought about sixty acres right outside of Flagstaff and then negotiated to get one square mile section to the west of the observatory protected because he thought that would give him enough buffer, which was very forward thinking at the time. Flagstaff is still the original dark sky community in the United States – first International Dark Sky Association City – and on Main Street in downtown Flagstaff, you can look up and see the Milky Way on a clear night.
Starting in the 1960s, we actually have use permits outside of town. The first is a place called Anderson Mesa. That's about nine miles outside of Flagstaff but also protected by a set of hills, and then the newest telescope we use is at a site called Happy Jack which is about forty miles outside of Flagstaff and that's in the middle of the Coconino National Forest and it's probably the best seeing in the continental United States. This is the Discovery Channel Telescope.
The Discovery Channel has now joined your efforts with their own telescope. How does this relationship with the Discovery Channel work?
It's the fifth largest telescope in the continental United States. There are some larger ones in Hawaii. John Hendricks, who founded the Discovery Channel and Discovery Communications and was on our advisory board, challenged the rest of the organization when we realized that we needed to build a new telescope. Both he and his wife Maureen personally donated substantially and the Discovery Communications Group, which he was then running, made a ten-year commitment to us for ten million dollars and that's where the naming rights came in. The relationship is that they have the right to do the general public announcements of any science that comes out of the telescope. They have absolutely no right – and John was very clear to make sure it was written in the agreement – to dictate the science. They don't care what research we do. They simply have the right to talk about it first.
How many scientists are there at the Lowell Observatory?
Today, we have fourteen tenured Ph.D. astronomers. We have six to eight post-docs who work with them but who are also starting their own research paths, and then we have a number of pre-docs that work with staff gaining experience. We have a full time equivalent staff of about eighty people and the rest are running our public program. Last year we had over 100,000 visitors because of New Horizons and Pluto.
It's a little bit frustrating to realize that the majority of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way where they live because of how much we've expanded and how much light pollution we let occur, and the United States Park Service is working very hard to ensure half the park experience is after dark because there's something really impressive about being able to go outside and look up and just see everything that's out there.
Why should the world care about what you're doing?
There are sort of two paths to that answer. One is that curiosity is built into the human system. It's actually a survival trait. The more you understand about your environment, the less likely something is going to eat you or that you are to do something stupid and hurt yourself. As humans, we are always looking to understand more about what we don't know.
Curiosity is a survival trait? Excellent.
It is. Think about it. The more you understand about your environment, the more you understand about things that might be around the periphery that might impact you or be advantageous to you. ‘Oh, look. There's better water over there.’ That means you have to explore and you have to know what ‘over there’ is and what it takes to get there. There's this continuous need to look beyond.
Specifically understanding our star – the sun – means understanding other stars. If we only observe our star and no other stars, then it's as though we're studying a middle-aged person and we don't understand what its childhood was like and we don't know what happens to it in old age. We don't even know when old age might take place. But because we study other stars, we do know these things. Even eighteen months ago, we thought that we understood our solar system and how the bodies inside our solar system form and then New Horizons went past Pluto and Pluto turned out to be very different and a lot more active. If we want to go look for earth-like planets and hopefully find out if indeed there is somebody else out there, we need to know for what we are looking.
Isn’t that NASA's role?
NASA does space missions, mostly, and supports Hubble, Kepler Spitzer and the new James Webb Telescope. All three are involved in investigating extrasolar objects. Whereas, the Lowell Observatory research covers the solar system as well as other objects within our galaxy and beyond. We're looking to understand the formation of stars, the formation of galaxies with an understanding of how solar systems form.
Planetary systems are very different. We're already able to determine that sometimes you've got big gaseous things close to the sun-star and you've got rocks that are further out. We ask, ‘why are we this way and what made us that way versus what made the other things a certain way?’ These are questions we really don't have answers to. We've only recently realized that we should have been asking that question all along.
How does public funding factor in?
A large percentage of our funding is from the National Science Foundation (NSF) within the division of Mathematics & Physics.
Isn’t that who funds much of MIT research?
It funds a lot of things at MIT. NSF funding is the major source of scientific research funding for these sciences. Obviously if you go into biosciences in Kendall Square, funding comes from the National Institute of Health. NSF does most of our funding and then we have some other private funding sources along with the trust that Percival left and then, public donations. Our visitor program does do a great deal to inspire people and they help support us. We are private and we don't have a university behind us.
Do you consider yourself on the front line of research or are you more of a historic institution?
We absolutely consider ourselves on the front line of research. The history happens because of the research that we do. Our mission is to do good science, to go out there and explore astronomical research areas and to understand as much as we can or help increase our understanding of our place in the universe.
Having done that research, our secondary mission is to describe our work to the public, and to engage them. It so happens that we've been good at this dual mission and we have history on our side: the first data of the Expanding Universe came from Lowell Observatory, the discover of Pluto, as well as the maps used by the Apollo missions for landing on the moon, and the rings of Uranus were discovered here.
Our scientists keep doing it and not only at our own research facilities. They are large users of the Hubble and we do a lot of research down in Chile in the Southern Hemisphere where we can see different sides of the sky than what we can see from Flagstaff. We conduct joint missions regularly with NASA and the German space agency. Our team of scientists is a major user of a 747 that we cut a hole in the side of and put a telescope in. They fly it up to about 45,000 feet and run missions up there where they're above most of the atmosphere.
Boston has a lot of history to protect: Paul Revere’s House, Longfellow’s House, Thoreau’s Walden Pond and the North Bridge to name a few. Why do you think it important to protect these historic places?
I will tell you two things. One: if you understand progress of scientific discovery, you know that to do that you need to get a historical perspective. You need to understand why people were thinking the way they were thinking and what kind of discoveries changed them and how those became accepted and became mainstream. That's a useful understanding as you look forward.
When the New Horizons mission spacecraft was heading out to Pluto, on its nine-year journey, people on the team who had worked at Lowell Observatory all of a sudden wanted to figure out if they could refine the orbit of Pluto better so that they could refine the space craft track better to save on its fuel supply. They remembered that there are photographic plates in the archives of Lowell Observatory that go back to 1915 that have Pluto on them. It turned out the 1915 plates weren't quite good enough but the 1921 or '22 plates were, and they were able to do a better refinement of Pluto's orbit. They were able to refine the space craft's flight path better with the result that New Horizons has enough fuel left on it which allowed it to go explore yet another object of the Kuiper Belt and possibly will be able to explore a third.
How did Percival set up this trust and what worked?
It is exactly 100 years since Percival died in November 1916, and proof that individuals can absolutely make a difference in how we see ourselves in the world. Percival's commitment to science, his lifelong commitment to learning, and his desire to share that knowledge are incredibly important messages for today's wealthy to study. Money comes and goes. Fame can be fleeting, but good foundational work and support for that kind of research is something that lasts the generations and helps human kind to move forward.
He wrote into the fund that only one family member could be in charge of the observatory. How has your family addressed this?
Percival created something called a sole trusteeship and he modeled that on something here in Boston called the Lowell Institute, which is run right now by my eighth cousin William A. Lowell. Percival’s decision to do that was based on a belief that there are times when you have a board or a group in charge, and sometimes they get into a bad state where everybody thinks somebody else is keeping an eye on things and therefore they don't need to be involved. We've all seen this where sometimes organizations go off the rails because the board of trustees as a group wasn't really on top of things. His belief was that there's a sole trusteeship and therefore you knew you're getting the job so you understand that you're the only one. There's nobody to hide behind and nobody else at whom to point fingers. You're going to stay focused on making the institution a success or you're not going to take the job. You'll have somebody else take the job.
How long have you been the sole trustee?
I took over from my father who resigned in 2013. I had been working closely with the institution since about 2010, when I sold my own company and I was well prepared to take over the job.
I’ve noticed over the years that the people I interview have agency. When you're put in charge of something, that's a call to agency. Many people in America don't feel they have agency today. How does it feel to be responsible for this?
Sometimes a little daunting but in general this is a tremendous institution. They've done phenomenal work. The track record out there is incredible. The director and the researchers and the public program - people are all doing just wonderful work and it shows. If you go on social media and look at people who've come up there and been given tours, we're doing what our culture says we should be doing. We're doing really good research and we're doing our best to talk about it in ways that engage the general public and get people excited about it. When you get reviews where people talk about how we transformed their child's life because of their experience, that's very reaffirming that we're doing the right kind of thing.
What advice do you have for families who have the resources to create something like this?
It's very important to craft a good mission statement and create a viable structure for that going forward. But once you do that, don't make any other restrictions because 100 years later, the world will be different. The technology will have changed. Our understanding and knowledge will be different and you need to have trust that having given this guidance, you then put in a mechanism for having good people do the job. Then let it go. If you set a good example and you can articulate something cleanly and simply and give them the structure to drive forward, then you've done the right thing.
Were there many restrictions left by Percival?
We didn't have to create our mission statement because basically there are two sentences in his will and those two sentences have stood the test of 100 years. They are absolutely still relevant. They still give us guidance.
If you ever come out to Flagstaff, you can look over the fireplace and read them.
“The Lowell Observatory is an independent, non-profit research institution and the world’s first Dark-Sky City. Their mission is to pursue the study of astronomy, especially the study of our solar system and its evolution; to conduct pure research in astronomical phenomenon; and to maintain quality public education and outreach programs to bring the results of astronomical research to the general public.”
What public opinion would you like to change?
I think that America needs to really readdress its support for fundamental and basic research. I consider that a national imperative. Over the past 20 years, we have been in a steady state of decline in terms of funding to basic research. Back then we were second in the world as a percentage of spending on research as a percentage of Gross National Product. Now we are now eighth in the world and we're heading for tenth.
Is this different from military research?
Pure research is pure research. How it gets applied is a different conversation. The military likes pure research too because we all need 'fundamental' to take the next step.
At the same point, other countries such as China will be outspending the United States in absolute dollars in research by 2020. I'm happy that the Chinese want to spend money on research. I support them doing it. It is what led to us having the technology revolution that we have had for the past thirty years here in the US.
If you look at the human genome project, when it started nobody had an idea of how it was of any applicable outcome. They simply wanted to get an understanding. All that's come out in bio-pharma is a result of the human genome project. If you look at the world of computer technology and you look at the fundamental areas backed by NSF funding back in the '60s and '70s in materials, in software, the cell phone is an absolute outcome of this. I think a mistaken approach in Washington to federal funding is that ‘people should tell us what they're going to discover in advance so we can measure and see whether they did it.’ In basic research, you don't know what you're doing until you try something and sometimes you fail. That basic research then leads to things where it can be applied. Bright people can come up with ideas about how to put these things together and make value out of them, but you must have the basic research to make that value.
What about private efforts like those of Elon Musk?
Cool. Go for it. I think that the fact that you have visionaries like Elon, Bezos, and others who are looking at this and saying, ‘there's something we can do here that's good and good for our shareholders’ is great. But again, if it hadn't been for the fundamental research and the groundbreaking publicly supported research, they wouldn't be in a position to do that.
Technologies used for space-based industries are advancing so fast that the marketplace is willing to put money into it because there's a value creation that they believe is going to occur. This is wonderful and exciting. I think the idea that most low earth orbit stuff could be turned over to the commercial marketplace could use some oversight. I'm a little concerned about opening a gold rush city but I think the further out you go into space, the more it has to be a NASA type effort.
Can we wrap up with some of the big discoveries in astronomy that we are hearing about at the top of this new year? How about snow on Pluto, asteroids that might kill us, and deep space radio noise... What's going on?
Ok, let me run through them:
Snow on Pluto – The recent revelation that the snakeskin terrain on Pluto may be erosional features (called penitentes) is just the latest finding from the New Horizons flyby and is a reminder that countless other discoveries from New Horizons will be forthcoming this year and beyond. Lowell’s Will Grundy, as the leader of the New Horizons surface composition team, will be a leading player in many of these discoveries. One of the interesting aspects of Will’s work is that he compares the actual observations of the Pluto system with laboratory studies (at Northern Arizona University’s Ice Lab) that simulate the icy conditions in the outer solar system. This lab work allows Will and his team to build a framework for understanding the actual observations. Stay tuned for more surprising, unexpected, theory-changing discoveries of Pluto and its family of moons.
Asteroid research in protection of Earth – Boy, this will continue to be a hot issue that draws a lot of interest from the media and general public. Our asteroid specialist, Nick Mokovitz, has made great strides in this area with his recent completion of a system of off-the-shelf cameras that that record the night sky. He has two different stations, each with 16 cameras, and they can detect fireballs, meteors, and other such debris. Using this system, Nick can not only observe these events, but determine their direction of movement. If a piece of debris survives its flight through our atmosphere and hits Earth, then data from Nick’s system helps scientists pinpoint the likely location where the debris hit, so that they can then go and recover pieces. Nick’s program is now running at full strength so we can expect some major observations and meteorite recovery in the next year. All of this is very helpful in better understanding the nature of asteroids and comets and how they impact us (sorry for the pun) here on Earth.
Discovery of deep space radio waves – While no-one at Lowell is directly working on this, it applies to research of some of our astronomers. These deep space radio waves, called FRBs (Fast Radio Bursts) were discovered a decade ago, but their place of origin, cause, and other factors continue to be debated by scientists. One major advance was announced this week by a team that had observed some FRBs last year. The team determined that the source of the FRBs was a dwarf galaxy some three billion light years from Earth. This is interesting news for Lowell’s Deidre Hunter, who has been studying and classifying dwarf galaxies for 30 years. She is a leading expert on the topic, and this new discovery adds another piece to the dwarf galaxy puzzle that she is working on solving
What event are you most looking forward to?
On August 21st, 2017, we will have a total solar eclipse. The observatory will have a number of our staff out in Madras, Oregon, which is likely going to be the best first place in the United States to see the total solar eclipse and it is a really impressive event.
You have this effect of dusk occurring and then total darkness. All of a sudden birds and animals think it's nighttime and then it’s suddenly daytime again and they get very confused. You are able to watch what they call the ring of fire where you actually see solar flares with a good pair of binoculars. But I would warn people that you only have about a fifteen minute period where you can look directly at the sun and see these things and you should have somebody there who's going to tell you, ‘Stop! Look away’ because once that shifts, it can be damaging to your eyes.
It's not quite once in a lifetime but it is something really, really impressive and worth seeing.
Where is the best place to watch it?
Bend, Oregon. There may be a few hotel rooms left in Bend but they're going to book up. If you haven't made reservations, move really quickly. It's Monday, August 21st.
It comes on shore in Oregon and it exits out in the Carolinas. So, Saint Louis will be the largest major city that'll have total eclipse but will the weather be good enough? Will there be clouds in the sky? As a matter of fact, a total eclipse also makes its own weather because as the sun gets covered and remembering it's traveling, it then cools off and cloud formations chases the eclipse a little bit and then dissipate when the eclipse has passed.
Where should we go to expand our minds about astronomy?
A lovely good dark sky and a nice pair of binoculars and you can knock yourselves out. Get out with a good pair of binoculars and go into Vermont, New Hampshire on a dark clear night and just look at the wonder that's up there. It's wonderful.
Favorite place to go in Flagstaff?
Lowell Observatory, of course. I am lucky that I actually get out to the telescopes and see some of the research. I am always a little humbled when I go into the Clark Dome and the Clark Telescope and realize the work that was done there. We still have people on staff that are retired astronomers who used that for scientific research. We recently spent about $300,000 renovating it and it's in full use for the public. You can go out there and look through the telescope that Percival Lowell used, and that Slipher used to discover the Expanding Universe, and that was used to do the early research to discover Pluto and the rings of Uranus.
Favorite place in Boston?
I'd be hard pressed to pick one. I like the Boston Common in the summertime. It's a lovely place. The harbor and the activity there is also gorgeous to watch. Boston is very much a vibrant and alive community and it's really good to see that.