Can we eat them?

Rivka Galchen

A century or so ago the astronomer Percival Lowell made a series of maps of Venus that showed curious spokes running across the planet’s surface. The lines were difficult to understand; no one else had observed them. Were they canals, or craters? And how was Lowell seeing them through the thick cloud of Venus’s atmosphere? In 2002, Sky and Telescope magazine ran an article that mentioned the very narrow aperture Lowell had used to view Venus when making his maps: he had narrowed the aperture to reduce glare because Venus was so bright. Several optometrists and ophthalmologists, reading the article, realised the explanation for the mysterious spokes. The aperture had made an ophthalmoscope of the telescope. Lowell was looking at his own eye, and the spokes corresponded to vasculature on his retina. His distant planet was himself. The ‘spokes’ were a telltale sign of dangerously high blood pressure. Lowell made his last Venus observations in 1914, and he died of a brain haemorrhage two years later.

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[*] Fredric Jameson wrote about the last volume in the LRB of 8 November 2018.