18 August 2009

My Regards to the Squashes

When I give talks about my latest book, The Day We Found the Universe, I'm often asked, "What is your favorite story from the book?" The answer is easy for me: the squashes.

While doing research for the book two years ago at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, I eagerly read all the correspondence between Percival Lowell, the observatory's Boston Brahmin founder, and his top assistant Vesto Slipher (the astronomer who would later be the first to discover galaxies moving outward). Lowell, often traveling on business during the early 1900s, remained in close contact with Slipher about all kinds of matters. From afar, Lowell offered his advice on matters astronomical (“Don’t observe sun much. It hurts lenses.”), administrative (“Permit nobody whatever in observatory office…”), and personal (“Will you kindly see if shredded wheat biscuit are to be got at Haychaff.”).

But I laughed out loud in the library (fortunately, only I and the archivist Antoinette Beiser were there at the time) when I came across a wonderful series of letters regarding the observatory's garden. I told Antoinette then and there that I was determined to include the story in my book. Here's how it turned out:

Lowell doted on his observatory garden and insisted on news of its condition whenever he was away. “How fare the squashes?” asked Lowell one year as fall harvest approached. His letter the following week closed with, “My regards to the squashes.” And finally, “You may when the squashes ripen send me one by express.”

Slipher did not respond. “Why haven’t I received squashes. Express at once if possible,” Lowell anxiously telegraphed right after Christmas. Slipher reluctantly had to answer that the poor gourds, alas, had shriveled up and died.

All was forgiven, though, by next spring [1902]. “Thank you for taking so much pains with the garden! Just keep on planting and you will get something,” wrote Lowell. Slipher did; by July he was sending Lowell his latest bounty. “Your vegetables came all right and delighted me hugely,” replied Lowell. More were sent in October.

As with his gardening, Slipher made progress on the spectrograph as well, eventually becoming a virtuoso at its operation....

Above images: (top) Percival Lowell and (bottom) Vesto Slipher (Lowell Observatory Archives)


  1. Thanks for tuning in, MrsLittleJeans!

  2. Great story--wish I had read it before finishing my PLUTONIC SONNETS (PublishAmerica 2008)! It seems there was not much that failed to interest Percival Lowell...

  3. You're welcome to include it in your second edition, Rob. Thanks for writing.

  4. Well, thanks very much indeed. However, the way the first edition is selling, we would be unwise to hold our breath I am afraid...


    (User is resignedly puffing on his briar--a bent shape, apparently...)

  5. Robert Bates GraberOctober 15, 2009 at 11:05 AM

    PS: The last quarter of my book PLUTONIC SONNETS revolves around Percival Lowell, Lowell Observatory, and the discovery and naming of Pluto. Here, with permission of the publisher (PublishAmerica, 2008), are three of them:

    Sonnet 120

    “My Darling Percy,” so his mother wrote
    To Percival, her eldest, favorite son;
    His father was accordingly remote,
    A proper Brahmin sire, not much for fun.
    At Harvard, Percy turned out to excel
    In the humanities, and science too;
    Then in the family business did quite well:
    It seems there wasn’t much he couldn’t do.
    But he was champing at the Brahmin bit;
    He and his clever friends were wont to scoff
    At its restraints. So rather than submit
    To Brahmin bridal plans, he broke things off;
    And strongly set on being his own man,
    Set off on a long journey to Japan.

    Sonnet 127

    We like to think we’re sensible enough
    To trust our senses—to scrutinize
    Two lines and pick the longer’s not too tough;
    The evidence is right before our eyes!
    But Asch ran studies of conformity,
    And showed that what the normal human being
    Will see (or claim to see) will often be
    Whatever peer-group members say they’re seeing.
    So when they peered into his telescope,
    His rich, distinguished friends (both guys and gals),
    Who knew he’d been depressed but now had hope,
    Saw just as well as Percy his canals;
    And far be it from me to speak for you,
    But I think I’d have seen the damn things too.

    Sonnet 164

    Not far from the Grand Canyon is the place
    Where Percy long peered into the abyss
    And thought he saw, across the martian face,
    Canals. And I think I would be remiss
    Did I not mention that it’s pretty clear:
    The water ’neath the surface there is bound
    As ice, and in no way does it appear
    That martians or canals are to be found.
    But I suggest we take a little care,
    For others and ourselves as well as Mars,
    To tend more to what is than is not there:
    Huge craters and volcanoes, gaping scars
    Like Valles Marineris, which could hold
    Our own Grand Canyon half a thousandfold.

  6. Thank you so much for posting these sonnets, Rob. What fun!