Thursday, August 31, 2006

Pluto and the Land of the Morning Calm

Walls of Kyongbok Palace, looking towards Namsan 1883-84

Some of my students mentioned to me the other day that Pluto was no longer considered a planet; I promptly forgot about it until I read this post by the Metropolitician.

Pluto was discovered on February 18th, 1930 by an astronomer named Clyde Tombaugh, working at Lowell observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. The observatory had been built 36 years earlier by Percival Lowell, who had been interested in studying the surface of Mars. In 1895, Lowell published a book titled, simply enough, Mars, which can be found online here. In this book, Lowell, having seen canals such as these, theorized that life might exist on Mars. Three years after Lowell's book was published, H.G. Wells published "War of the Worlds", which seems to have been influenced by Lowell's book (and is also notable for Orson Welles' radio adaptation which caused mass panic in the US on October 30, 1938 (downloadable here), as well as Alan Moore's second volume of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - which also references an Edgar Rice Burroughs's Princess of Mars - another book perhaps influenced by Lowell's writing). Lowell wrote more books about Mars, but in 1905 began looking for planet X, which he theorized must exist beyond Neptune. He failed to discover it before his death in 1916, but his work would be carried on by relatives a decade after his death, who built a special photographic telescope, and who hired the aforementioned Clyde Tombaugh. Pluto's astronomical symbol became PL, standing not only for 'Pluto', but also for Percival Lowell.

Lowell's past before becoming an astronomer is also rather interesting, as he lived in in Japan for a number of years in the 1880s and 1890s, before returning home for good in 1893. In 1883 he was invited to accompany Korea's first trade mission to the US.

Korea's 1st trade mission to the US. Percival Lowell, 2nd from left

Upon returning to Korea in late 1883, stayed several months in Korea, where he witnessed the 1884 coup d'etat, which he wrote about in the November 1886 issue of The Atlantic Monthly (which can be found here). He also took a number of photos of Korea at that time, which can be found here (click' search').

Children on Namsan, overlooking Seoul and Bugaksan

At a market in Seoul

Lowell also published Choson, Land of the Morning Calm: A Sketch of Korea in 1886, as well as a number of books on Japan, such as The Soul of the Far East and Noto: an Unexplained Corner of Japan (available via the gutenberg project).

Quoting the passage below from Lowell's book about Korea (pictured above), Scott Bug, in Korea Bug, notes "how uncannily it invokes the mood or ambience of science fiction, despite being a travel book about a very real place written in the latter part of the nineteenth century."
Two days out from Pusan found us steaming, like some lost vessel, up the long reaches that were to end at Chemulpo. "The world forgetting, by the world forgot," only a strong faith in human testimony justified the assumption that we were approaching anything. The feeling was heightened by the strange look of both people and land. About me were men clad, as imagination might paint the denizens of another planet, but not such as I had once supposed existed on this; while, on turning to the coast, I seemed to be carried back in geological time as before I had felt changed in space. Around me lay suggestions of the earlier unformed ages of the earth. Huge purpoise-backed mounds, unslightly because deprived of Nature's covering of trees, and vast plains of mud alternated with stretches of sea. The scene had the desolateness of the early geologic ages.

Is he describing Korea? Mars? Pluto? You almost get the feeling the years of being an expat in those heady days when much of the world was left to be "discovered" had left its mark on him, that his decision to take up astronomy when he returned was influenced by the strange things he had seen in Korea and Japan, and that his experiences there may have left him wanting to find even stranger, more remote landscapes on neighbouring planets, or even upon planets (or as of this week, planetoids) that had not even been discovered yet.

(More biographical information on Lowell can be found here).


Stefan Ewing said...

I'll be! I'm sure I've run across Lowell's name before in connection to Korea, but it never twigged that this was the same gentleman whose work led to the discovery of Pluto. Talk about a renaissance man!

Tukhachevsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tukhachevsky said...

After a far too long hiatus from your blog, today I read this posting about Percival Lowell. This is the first time I heard about Lowell's connection to Korea, too. Thank you for sharing!