Fossils from the Mountains of Madness (Part 2)

Greg Onychuk The Fowler Imprint_www.propnomicon.blogspot.com                                  The Fowler Imprint (Greg Onychuk; http://www.propnomicon.blogspot.com)

Of all of the fossils collected during the Miskatonic expedition to Antarctica, the most intriguing specimens were those of the footprints of the Elder Things.  As previously mentioned, a variety of fossils including ferns, seaweeds, trilobites, and a number of living marine invertebrates were discovered near Queen Alexandra Range.  However, also discovered in the sandstones were strange triangular striated marking, about a foot in diameter at their widest point. While Lake, the lead biologist on the expedition found these triangular fossils interesting and curious, Dyer who was the expedition’s lead geologist saw them as nothing more than ripple effects, which are common in sedimentary rock.  Such ripple marks form perpendicular to the direction of the wind or water (current or waves).  In this case, the fossilized ripple marks (see below) are indicative of agitation by water and were symmetrical, so they were probably formed by gentle waves or fast flow water.  In any event, based on the description of the triangular fossils, it is difficult to see how they could be mistaken for ripple marks. However, this was probably just an attempt by Dyer to explain the strange markings.

Ripple-Marks-GeologyPage-300x199

After flying over the South Pole and conducting some additional aerial surveying, Lake insisted that the new base be established in a westward direction, instead of the planned northwestward direction. This change in direction was sparked by Lake’s obsession with the strange “triangular striated marking in the slate.” Lake was convinced that these marking were not ripple marks but instead of some large, unknown organism, in spite of it being dated to be Cambrian, if not Precambrian.

In Lovecraft’s time, the Precambrian (recognized as the period of time from the formation of the Earth about 4.6 billion years ago to the beginning of the Cambrian about 541 million years ago) was generally thought to be dominated by unicellular life.  It was not until 1950’s when radiometric carbon dating was developed, that it was confirmed that multicellular life existed in the Precambrian. Indeed, the earliest multicellular forms of life are found in rock as old as 1.2 to 1.5 billion years ago. These ancient multicellular forms were a form of filamentous red algae named Bangiomorpha pubescens and were discovered in the 1990s (M.J. Benton; The History of Life: A Very Short Introduction; 2008).

funsia                                                                    Fossilized imprint of the red alga Bangiomorpha, one of the first multicellular organisms

The first recognized ecosystem dominated by multicellular species was during the Ediacara Period (between 635 and 542 million year ago). To be fair, when Lovecraft first suggested that the fossil footprints were of the Elder Things and dated somewhere between the Cambrian / Precambrian, very little was known about multicellular life in the Precambrian. The strange organisms of the Ediacara were discovered in the Ediacara Hills, north of Adelaide, Australia in 1946 by a young mining geologist named Reginald Sprigg (The History of Life: A Very Short Introduction by Michael J. Benton; 2008).  Many of these Ediacaran fossils looked like jellyfish, branching fronds and worms.  Some say the Ediacara species are the direct ancestors of many of existing marine fauna, while other state these species were so unlike most living forms that the majority of the Ediacaran died out approximately 540 million years ago (Benton, 2008).

Precambrian_p7angelinai-gts.weebly.com        The Ediacaran ecosystem in the Precambrian

Additional support for the hypothesis that the Ediacaran species represent some of the earliest known multicellular, animals on Earth was very recently presented.  Specifically, fossil fat molecules (cholesterol) were collected and measured off of a fossil of a species known and Dickinsonia.  These species lived 558 million years ago placing it firmly in the Precambrian.  So why did most, if not all, of the Ediacaran species, die out? Maybe the Ediacarans were an experiment of the Elder Things and for some reason decided to abandon and/or start over with a new “stock” of eukaryotic cells.

1024px-DickinsoniaCostata Fossil of Dickinsonia

Getting back to the fossilized Elder Thing footprints, initially one may ask why they would not be mistaken for another Ediacaran species.  The shape and appearance of the footprints may indicate that they were another flat, soft-bodied, bottom feeder, similar to Dickinsonia.  So why did Lake suspect that these fossils were footprints of some large animal and not a group of bottom-feeding species? It must have been the pattern of the fossils.  One or two fossil imprints would look like a few organisms.  However, a number of the same fossil imprint laid out in a linear arrangement, such as the dinosaur tracks shown below, is definitely an indication of the movement of some larger animal.

La-Rioja-dinosaur-footprints-protected-under-Cultural-Heritage-Law Dinosaur footprints at the La Rioja Cultural Heritage site

It was generally thought that animals did not start colonizing the land until the Silurian, between 440 and 410 million years ago.  However, in 2002 older fossilized footprints of a lobster-sized, centipede-like animal were discovered in some sandstone (see below).  These footprints are approximately 530 million years old (https://www.nature.com/news/1998/020429/full/news020429-2.html).  Thus, it appears that some animals were wading out of the shallow seas and onto the land during the Precambrian.  Thus, these creatures were around the same time the Elder Things were moving over the Earth.  Were the lobster-sized, centipede-like animals special pet projects of the Elder Things or were they just another discarded and abandoned biological experiment, cast out to be subjugated to the forces of evolutionary natural selection?

footprints_160                                                                                                                         Some of the earliest fossil footprints of a terrestrial organism on Earth

Next time we discuss the actual discovery of the “fossilized” Elder Thing specimens.  Thank you – Fred.

img_31131.jpg           Illustration of Elder Thing footprints by Pete Von Sholly

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Fossils from the Mountains of Madness (Part 1)

ATMOM_Steamgear_deviantart At the Mountains of Madness by Steamgear (wwwdeviantart.com)

During the Pabodie – Lake, Miskatonic expedition to Antarctica, a number of fascinating fossils were discovered, in addition to the dormant Elder Things.  Frank Pabodie was a professor of engineering who developed a specialized drill that was used to bore through the Antarctic soils and bedrock, while Professor Lake was the expedition’s lead biologist who oversaw the collection of the fossils and other specimens.  In addition to Pabodie and Lake, the other two lead Miskatonic professors on the expedition were Professor Atwood of the physics department (also a trained meteorologist) and William Dyer of the geology department (S.T. Joshi [editor], H.P. Lovecraft – The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, 2001).  Over the next few articles we will be reviewing a number of the fossils founds during the Miskatonic expedition.  It should be noted that Pabodie’s experimental drill was first used just above Beardmore Glacier approximately 8,500 feet above sea-level on Mt. Nansen.

BeardmoreGlacier_www.coolantarctica.com

Beardmore Glacier (www.coolantarctia.com)

Some additional drillings to the west, near Queen Alexandra Range (see figure below) revealed a variety of fossils including ferns, seaweeds, trilobites, crinoids and two molluscs including lingulae and gasteropods.  With the exception of the trilobites, all of these identified organisms are still living today.  Thus, in order to be a “time stamp” on this collection of fossils, we will first discuss the trilobites.

Central Transantarctic Mountains

Queen Alexandra Range (www.michelle-kotnik.com)

Trilobites are a group of extinct arthropods, making up their own class, the Trilobita.  These organisms were some of the most successful early animals, living on Earth for almost 252 million years.  They first appear in the fossil record in abundance around in the early Cambrian around 521 million years ago.  However, there is some evidence to suggest that trilobites may have existed as far back as 700 million years or even earlier.  Once the trilobites appeared in the Cambrian, they rapidly diversified into a number of major orders. Trilobite diversity appeared to be highest in the Cambrian but were still fairly common in the Ordovician.  However, through the rest of the Paleozoic Era, trilobite diversity and abundance appeared to decline with a number of near-extinctions.  Finally, by the end of the Permian period all trilobites went extinct, leaving no known living, direct descendants. It should be noted that the trilobites were not alone in this.  Over 96% of all marine species went extinct during the Permian – Triassic extinction event, which occurred approximately 252 million years ago.  This extinction event was the largest of the big five events, where a total of 90% of all species went extinct (Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis, 2009; Evolution: The First Four Billion Years).

trilobite_1200px-Kainops_invius_lateral_and_ventral

Fossil trilobites

Ferns are a group of “primitive” plants that have specialized tissues such as trees and flowers but reproduce by spores and not seed or flowers.  Ferns first appeared in the late Devonian, approximately 360 million years ago.  Thus, if all of these fossil finds of the Miskatonic expedition were from the same geologic time, they must have originated from somewhere between the late Devonian and the end of the Permian.

fern

Seaweed (complex algae) may have been some of the oldest multicellular organisms on Earth, dating back more than 555 million year old, well into the Precambrian (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160322134110.htm).  Thus, of all of the fossils organisms identified, the seaweeds are the oldest.

alberto-kelp_image-banner_1500x650

Crinoids, commonly called sea lilies, are a group of marine animals that are in the phylum Echinodermata, also known as echinoderms.  With the exception of a few specimens found in the Burgess Shale, the crinoid group (class: Crinoidea) was first well represented in the Ordovician period, between 485 and 443 million years.  While this class of echinoderms were fairly abundant and diverse in the past, today they are represented by about 600 living species.

800px-Crinoid_and_comatule A living Crinoid, also known as a sea lily.

The last set of fossils cited in this passage were “…molluscs including lingulae and gasteropods.”  The Mollusca is one of the largest phyla of animal life, second only to the Arthropoda (the insects and their relatives).  Mollusks are soft-bodied animals that have some type of internal or external shell and include clams and squid.  Gasteropods are a class of mollusks that include the snails and their relatives (L. Margulis and K.V. Schwartz; Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth, 1982).  However, the term lingulae probably refers to genus Lingula (lamp shells), which is placed in its own phylum, Brachiopoda.  The major difference between the Brachiopods and Mollusks is that Brachiopod shells have upper and lower surfaces in contrast to the left and right arrangement of the mollusks.

Lingula

A living Brachiopod of the genus Lingula.

From an evolutionary perspective, the mollusks are far more successful than the brachiopods; mollusks have approximately 7,600 living species while brachiopods only have approximately 350 living species.  In Darwin’s travels, he found the windswept cliffs of the Falkland Islands full of brachiopod fossils. In contrast to the total number of living species, over 35,000 species of brachiopods have been found in the fossil record.  At one point, they were the most abundant group of animals on Earth.  Given how specific species can be found in specific rocks, brachiopod fossils can be used to determine the age of the rock where a particular fossil was found.  This dating technique agrees well with more modern methods of dating rocks (https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/darwin/a-trip-around-the-world/fossils-and-living-species/ancient-shells/).

brachiopod_fossils                                Brachiopod fossils

I believe Lovecraft including the lingulae with the gasteropods as members of the Mollusca phylum is an error on his part.  I can find no evidence that brachiopods were once considered to be another class within the Mollusca phylum.  If this is not directly attributed to an error on Lovecraft’s part, then it may have been an error from his reference source, possibly the Encyclopedia Britannia.  This is one of those rare instances where Lovecraft’s research for a story was flatly incorrect.

Next time we will continue to move forward in At the Mountains of Madness to discover what other fossils the Miskatonic Expedition found.  Thank you – Fred.

Lovecraft’s Use of Dinosaurs

With the opening of Jurassic Park: Forbidden Kingdom a few weeks ago I thought I would review Lovecraft’s thoughts on dinosaurs and his use of these ancient organisms in his tales.  In S.T. Joshi’s biography of H.P. Lovecraft, I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft (2013), Joshi did note that in his diary Lovecraft mentioned that on 6 October 1925 he went to see the film The Lost World, which is based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of the same name. The film features some stunning stop motion special effects that were amazing for its time and actually hold up even today. These special effects were achieved through the efforts of Willis O’Brien who also worked on King Kong (1933) and Might Joe Young (1949). O’ Brien was also the mentor to special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. It would have been interesting to hear Lovecraft’s opinion of the film The Lost World. However, Lovecraft did mention seeing King Kong and only stated that it had “good mechanical effects” (Joshi, 2013).

kingkong King Kong vs. a T. rex in the original 1933 film.

Additionally, Lovecraft recorded in his Common Place Book in 1919 the statement, “As dinosaurs were once surpassed by mammals, so will man-mammal be surpassed by insect or bird – fall of man before new race.” (Collected Essays: Volume 5: Philosophy, Autobiography and Miscellany – H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi; 2006). In the revision of Zealia Bishop’s tale “The Mound,” Lovecraft cites that an “altered” George E. Lawton emerged from the mound and was muttering a variety of things including, “…always down there, before there were any living things – older than the dinosaurs…” In both instances Lovecraft is using the dinosaurs as some type of indicator organisms to exemplify the extremely large spans of geologic time associated with rise and fall of species or civilizations.

yith2.jpg A member of the Great Race with a Velociraptor.

Our species (modern humans), Homo sapiens, is said to be at least 200,000 years old, although some studies that came out in 2017 indicate that, based on fossils recovered in Ethiopia, that modern humans may be as old as 350,000 years old. Our genus, Homo, is estimated to be a little over two million years old. In sharp contrast, dinosaurs are said to have been around from 250 to 65 million years ago (Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction by David Norman, 2005); essentially the Mesozoic Era. Thus, while our genus has been around for a little more than 2 million years, dinosaurs as a group were around for approximately 177 million years ago. While we consider ourselves to be the dominant organism on Earth as this time, from a geologic perspective, dinosaurs were far more successful. No wonder that Lovecraft used the dinosaurs as a sort of “geologic time stamp.”

Lovecraft used dinosaurs as a means of conveying cosmic horror not associated with outer space but with geologic time; in other words, our time being in existence is but a fleeting second in the grand scheme of the history of Earth and the universe. Carl Sagan put this within a context that we could understand – a calendar year. If the history of the Universe was scaled into a calendar year, where the Big Bang occurred on the first second of midnight on the 1st of January and the end of the year was the present, our cosmic insignificance from a temporal perspective is demonstrated. For example, in the history of the Universe all of human history would be limited to within the last minute of the last day of the year, the 31st of December. Again, within the temporal scale of the Cosmos humans are literally just a minor blip.

1280px-Cosmic_Calendar A graphical view of Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar

To get back to the dinosaurs, Lovecraft continues to use these organism as geologic indicators several times in At the Mountains of Madness, where the Elder Things cities were said to have existed at the time of the dinosaurs, during the Mesozoic Era. Additionally, compared to the Elder Things the dinosaurs were described as “…almost brainless objects…”. Indeed, in Lovecraft’s time dinosaurs were considered large but stupid ancient reptiles. While investigating what was known about dinosaurs in Lovecraft’s time, it was revealed that unlike most fields of science and technology (e.g. integrating genetics with evolution; the theory of relativity; quantum mechanics, etc.) in the early 20th century, paleontology was a fairly stagnant field. Bones and fossils were still being discovered but very little was being done to further this type of science (Norman, 2005). It would not be until the later part of the 20th century (the 1960’s and 1970’s), when paleontology would reveal that instead of being mindless brutes, dinosaurs were highly intelligent, many being social creatures who in a sense are still with us today as birds.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Out of Time,” while being in the body of a member of the Great Race in the distant past, Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee remembers recognizing “…dinosaurs, pterodactyls, ichthyosaurs, labyrinthodonts, plesiosaurs…”. The one group I was not familiar with on this list was the labyrinthodonts, which is an extinct subclass of amphibians that evolved from lobe-finned fishes in the Devonian and is a key ancestor to all extant land-living vertebrates. Again, the reference to dinosaurs and other animals helps to put Lovecraft’s story into the proper perspective relative to geologic time.

8SDM-Labyrinthodont A labyrinthodont (http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~imw/Sidmouth-Devon.htm)

To summarize, while dinosaurs were never the primary focus of any of Lovecraft’s stories, he would occasionally use them as indicator organisms of immense spans of geologic time; unlike labyrinthodonts, dinosaurs are recognized by most people. However, what a dinosaur was thought to be in the Lovecraft’s day, in the early 20th century, is very different than what we know about these extinct organisms today. I’m sure Lovecraft would be absolutely amazed what we know about dinosaurs today. It makes you wonder what humans will know and understand about dinosaurs in 50 to 100 years from now. Will there truly be a Jurassic Park someday?

B00003CXXS_JurassicParkIII_UXNB1__V142727186_RI_SX940_.jpg A scene from Jurassic Park III

Next time I will go back to reviewing some of Stephen Hawking’s ideas on multiple universes. Thank you – Fred.

Stephen Hawking’s Ideas in a Lovecraftian Cosmos

Yuri Milner And Stephen Hawking Announce Breakthrough Starshot, A New Space Exploration Initiative

On the 14th of March 2018 we lost one of the greatest scientists of the late 20th / early 21st century – Stephen Hawking.  He was a theoretical physicist, cosmologist and popularizer of science to general audiences, and in spite of being diagnosed and suffering from a slow-progressing form of the motor neuron disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), he led a full and productive life, working on exploring the mysteries of our universe and even beyond.  In this article we discuss how some of Hawking’s work was referenced and discussed in past articles here at Lovecraftian Science. A subsequent article will review some of Hawking’s work and how it can be used to better understand the Lovecraftian Cosmos.

In Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” we hypothesized that Zann had somehow made a connection to a parallel Universe with his music. In the book The Grand Design, written by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, the quantum origins of the multiverse, including our Universe, is essentially composed of a Wave Function. This concept is based on Hawking’s idea of applying quantum mechanics to the entire universe or at least at the origins of the universe.  Other physicists such as Richard Feynman identified that a particle in motion does not have a specific or unique endpoint (Hawking and Mlodinow, 2012).  Thus, the endpoint is not “etched in stone.” Rather, there are varying probabilities of what that endpoint will be and while some endpoints will have substantially higher probabilities over others, all possible endpoints need to be considered. Consider applying this concept to the entire universe and beyond.

zann Illustration of “The Music of Erich Zann” by Andrew Brosnatch for Weird Tales.

At the sub-atomic level, this haze of quantum probabilities is reality.  In contrast, at larger universal scales the quantum reality does not have to be taken into account.  However, at the origin of the universe, when it was as small as a billion-trillion-trillionth of a centimeter, quantum forces dominated. Stephen Hawking’s Wave Function hypothesis of the Universe examines the birth of the universe from a quantum perspective so that there are an infinite number of all possible universes; we happen live in a universe that had a high probability of being stable enough to support life.  More than likely most of these universes do not have the specific “mix” of physical properties to support and sustain life; at least life as we define it.

The proposed set or network of theories that support the multiverse concept is called M-theory. Each theory explains certain physical phenomenon within a given range of scale.  When these scales overlap, different theories agree.  However, when the scales do not overlap, different theories describe certain phenomenon (e.g. Newtonian mechanics describing the influence of gravity on a planetary scale vs. quantum mechanics describing sub-atomic interactions).   Thus, given this proposed network of theories, M-theory allows for the existence of different universes with different laws of nature (e.g. the charge of the electron, the actual strength of gravity).

M-Theory_2880x1920-2880x1920 M-Theory is a set of theory that are inter-linked; the strength of these links are based on the scale being observed.

Linking Hawking’s Wave Function hypothesis with M-theory, if the generation of the multiverse was associated with a quantum reality, then these universes are not separated in the sense of space-time but in a “quantum wave function.” In other words, parallel universes are co-spatial; that is, they are separated by quantum properties rather than space-time properties (The Layman’s Guide to Quantum Reality by J.D. Lovil, 2017).  Thus, other universes are not billions of light years away or in the distant past or future. Instead, they exist and are woven into our very existence. The link or connection between or among universes may not be through wormholes or time travel but through weak gravitational interactions among the universes. In turn, gravitational dark matter and/or dark energy may be the key to other universes and the Old Ones.

wavefunction                                                              Illustration of S. Hawking’s Wave Function hypothesis of universe generation.

The music of Erich Zann may have been generating micro-scale gravity waves of a very specific disturbance within space-time to link our universe with another. Or, as Lovecraft’s story suggests, Zann’s music prevented beings from another universe from entering ours. Somehow, sometime in Zann’s life he could have been exposed to a situation where it was revealed to him that others from another universe are attempting to entering ours through gravitational waves. The music he plays may disrupt the wave generation just enough to prevent access. That is an extremely heavy burden on one person; preventing an inter-universal invasion from extra-dimensional beings.

La musica di Erich Zann- AlexScibilia                     The Music of Erich Zann by Alex Scibilia.

Next time we will discuss in a little more detail how others such as the Old Ones may have access to our universe and why they are so different from us. Thank you – Fred.

At the Mountains of Madness, Part 2: The Geology of the Mountains of Madness

at_the_mountains_of_madness___concept_art_by_mcrassusart-db53yra At the Mountains of Madness, concept art by Mcrassusart.

The Miskatonic University Expedition to Antarctica was lead by Professor William Dyer of the Geology Department at Miskatonic. Thus, is it not surprising that a large component of the Expedition was dedicated to “…securing deep-level specimens of rock and soil from various parts of the Antarctic continent…” Such exploratory investigations of Antarctica were certainly warranted in Lovecraft’s day. Only 0.4% of the entire continent is covered by exposed rock with the rest it being under ice. In order to obtain some rock and fossil specimens the expedition’s engineer, Professor Frank H. Pabodie, designed and built a durable yet light weight drill that could bore through rock but also have the capacity of melting ice through the use of copper electrodes.

I could find no reference of the use of copper electrodes in ice drill systems as a means of melting ice; however, more than likely Lovecraft gave rise to this idea through his general knowledge of chemistry.  The thermal conductivity (the rate at which heat passes through a specific material, typically described as the amount of heat that flows per unit time) of copper is higher than zinc, brass, aluminum and steel so it melts ice the fastest among these metals.

When the Dyer – Pabodie Expedition reached Antarctica one of the first large-scale geologic formations they encountered were the Admiralty Range, which is a large group of high mountains located in Victoria Land. Other impressive landmarks were Mt. Erebus and Mt. Terror on Ross Island.

5900765.jpg

Mt. Erebus is the second highest volcano in Antarctica, being 12,448 feet high; Lovecraft estimated its height to be 12,700 ft high. Mt. Erebus has been an active volcano for at least 1.3 million years and is described as being a polygenetic (erupts repeatedly) stratovolcano (a conical volcano built by many layers of hardened lava, tephra, pumice and volcanic ash). Thus, in At the Mountains of Madness, when one of the graduate assistants Danforth notes the intermittent puffs of smoke and the lava flows along Mt. Erebus’s snowy slopes, Lovecraft is recognizing that this mountain is indeed an active volcano. Finally, Lovecraft describes the peak of Mt. Erebus as being scoriac; both S.T. Joshi and Leslie S. Klinger in their annotated analyses of Lovecraft’s text indicate that this word describes the dense chunks or jagged blocks of lava that are filled with holes due to gases forming bubbles. Again, this is another reference to the active state of Mt. Erebus.

MtErebus Mount Erebus

A large portion of the initial drilling and geologic activity of the Dyer – Pabodie Expedition occurred at Mt. Erebus. Dyer briefly mentions how the expedition conducted several mineral borings on the slopes of Mt. Erebus and how Pabodie’s drill was successful at boring through solid rock as well as melting ice layers. In addition to observing the scoria lava structures, the expedition may have also noted fumaroles on the slopes of Mt. Erebus. These structures are openings in the Earth’s crust, typically associated with volcanoes. They release steam and gases that can include several sulfur-based gases. In contrast, the fumaroles found around Mt. Erebus form ice towers that produce very little methane or hydrogen sulfide. In fact, the ecosystems that exist in these fumaroles may be some of the most alien on Earth.

Ice_Fumaroles_www.ngssphenomena.com Ice Fumaroles near the slopes of Mount Erebus (www.ngssphenomena.com)

While the Antarctic fumaroles may be on a dry and cold continent, the air inside these structures may have 80 to 100% humidity. In addition, while the surface temperature at Mt. Erebus can commonly be -22oF, within the fumaroles the temperature can be between 32 and 48oF. These warm, moist conditions harbor communities of chemolithoautotrophic bacteria.  Such organisms are not dependent on light to produce energy through photosynthesis like almost all ecosystems on Earth. Instead, these microbes utilize chemicals from the bedrock as a source of energy.  These are the same types of bacteria that serve as the base of the food web for the deep sea hydrothermal vents; again, another ecosystem where photosynthesis cannot occur.

Basic RGB                                                                          Various types of chemolithoautotrophic bacteria.

While ice fumaroles are not long-lasting structures, typically they are in existence for a few decades, one can imagine shoggoths using them to move through the Antarctic continent. With humid, warmer conditions, coupled with a possible source of energy (the chemolithoautotrophic bacteria), the shoggoths may have used the fumaroles as a sort of underground network for communication and travel.  The fumaroles may have also been used as refuge against the Elder Thing masters; maybe the shoggoths also used the fumaroles as a means of plotting and spreading word about their developing rebellions.

The scoria rock produced by the volcanic activity of Mt. Erebus may have been some of the building material used by the Elder Things to build their great cities in the Mountains of Madness. This volcanic rock has been frequently used as a building material by humans, including the residents of Easter Island. Indeed, some of the statues on Easter Island are composed of scoria rock but most are composed of a soft volcanic rock called tuff.

Pukao-Tongariki_scoriarock_EasterIsland_natgeo Scoria rock found on Easter Island (www.natgeo.org)

In sharp contrast to Mt. Erebus, Mt. Terror is an extinct volcano and Lovecraft identified it as such in the story.  He also describes it as “…white, ghost-like…” and that it has an altitude of 10,900 feet. Mt. Terror is a large shield volcano located on the eastern part of Ross Island and has numerous cinder cones and domes on its flanks, mostly covered under snow and ice. Based on Dyer, no geologic exploratory investigations were conducted at Mt. Terror.

at_the_mountains_of_madness_by_Earl-Graey-d701u1l At the Mountains of Madness by Earl Graey (www.deviantart.com)

Next time we will discuss the fossil findings of the Miskatonic University Expedition to Antarctica.  Thank you – Fred.

At the Mountains of Madness, Part 1: Lovecraft’s Continent

2099157_1

While we had record low temperatures throughout a large portion of the United States at the turn of the new year, its nothing compared to some of the low temperatures and high winds experienced on Antarctica, the continent where Lovecraft’s tale At the Mountains of Madness takes place. As Joshi describes in this comprehensive biography (I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft, 2013), Lovecraft was extremely fascinated with Antarctic geography and exploration since he was 10 or 12. In fact he wrote three treatises on the subject: “Voyages of Capt. Ross, R.N.” (1902), “Wilkes Explorations” (1902) and “Antarctic Atlas” (1903).  Unfortunately, these treatises are lost; it would have been fascinating to read these documents and exam the map of the continent Lovecraft illustrated in “Antarctic Atlas.”

The “Heroic Age” of Antarctic exploration was a period of time between the end of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century when there was an intensive and international effort to explore the continent of Antarctica. This unique period of time for Antarctic exploration is frequently cited as being between the “Heroic” and “Mechanical” ages, when individuals tested their mental and physical endurance in conjunction with using new and emerging technologies in transportation and communication. Lovecraft takes full advantage of this merging of 18th / 19th century exploration with early 20th century technology and scientific discoveries in the development of his tale.

HMS_Erebus_and_Terror_in_the_Antarctic_by_John_Wilson_Carmichael HMS Erebus and Terror in the Antarctic by John Wilson Carmichael

James Clark Ross (1800-1862) discovered the Ross Sea, Victoria Land, the Great Ice Barrier (later named the Ross Ice Shelf in his honor) and two large volcanoes, which he named after his two ships, Mt. Erebus and Mt. Terror.  As Joshi has described, the Ross expedition had a profound impact on Lovecraft as well as his development of At the Mountains of Madness. For example, Joshi noted that the ship’s doctor, Dr. Joseph Hooker, wrote in response to his initial view of Mt. Erebus, “This was a sight so surpassing everything that can be imagined…that is really caused a feeling of awe to steal over us at the consideration of our comparative insignificance and helplessness, and at the same time, an indescribable feeling of the greatness of the Creator in the works of His hand.” (Joshi, 2013). With the exception of the mention of the Creator, this passage really describes the cosmic indifference Lovecraft attempts to convey in his tales.

British (English) School; James Clark Ross (1800-1862)               James Clark Ross (1800-1862)

As a result of his expeditions to Antarctica, Ross believed that the continent was actually two land masses, a larger eastern part and a small western part (see below), separated by the Weddell and Ross Seas and their associated ice shelfs.

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Lovecraft believed in this hypothesis was well and in fact included a passage in an earlier draft of At the Mountains of Madness to reflect this:

“…west, but radically different from the parts lying eastward below South America, which in all probability form a separate and smaller continent divided from the larger by a frozen junction of the Ross and Weddell Seas.” (from The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft, edited with an introduction and notes by S.T. Joshi, 2001).

However, this version is not found in the actual tale. Lovecraft modified this passage in the final submission to Astounding Stories in late 1935 to state:

“west, but somewhat different from the parts lying eastward below South America – which we then thought to form a separate and smaller continent divided from the larger one by a frozen junction of Ross and Weddell Seas, though Byrd has since disproved this hypothesis.” (from Joshi, 2001).

The bolded passages are the ones that were added. Joshi does cite that Lovecraft is incorrect in stating that Byrd disproved this hypothesis; actually, it was Lincoln Ellsworth and Herbert Hollick-Kenyon who disproved it in late 1935 during the first airplane flight crossing over Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea (Joshi, 2001. However, the fact that Lovecraft took the time and care to make that small yet significant change to the text in At the Mountains of Madness, provides additional support to the claim that Lovecraft made every effort to make his tales as scientifically accurate as possible, with the information that was available at the time.

Mt-Erebus-lg_c9bfa69e-b296-45ca-9655-ec2347a0ddc0_1024x1024 Mt. Erebus on the continent of Antarctica

Next time we will discuss the geologic history of Antarctica as discussed in At the Mountains of Madness.  Thank you – Fred.

Lovecraftian Scientists: The Scientists in “The Colour Out of Space” or also known as Scientists Behaving Badly

Colour_IgorVitkovskly The Colour by Igor Vitkovskly

Crawford Tillinghast was a vengeful mad scientist, while Herbert West was cool and calculating, willing to use anyone as a test subject for his reanimation experiments.  However, of the Lovecraftian scientists reviewed to date, the scientists in “The Colour Out of Space” are probably the most dangerous. Instead of being individual “mad scientists” the scientists in “The Colour Out of Space” are elitists and do not have that critical, open minded attitude required in science. Put another way by Carl Sagan, “It pays to keep an open mind but not so open your brains fall out.”

In “The Colour Out of Space” a meteor falls to Earth, landing on farmland owned by Nahum Gardner. Nahum and his wife bring three professors from Miskatonic University to the farm to examine the meteor the day after it arrives. Nahum said the meteor shrank in size and in spite of having some physical evidence to back this claim (“It had shrunk, Nahum said as he pointed out the big brownish mound above the ripped earth and charred grass near the archaic well-sweep in his front yard…”) the professors simply stated “…stones do not shrink.” Thus, the professors would not even entertain or consider the idea that Nahum may be correct, even with the supporting evidence.

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The professors collect a sample of the meteor and place it in a pail since it is still generating heat almost a day after it landed on the farm.  Even when Ammi Pierce’s wife notes that the fragment appears to be burning and getting smaller in the pail, the professors still think nothing of the claim that the meteor is shrinking. Their response to Ms. Pierce’s observation of the shrinking sample was “…perhaps they had taken less than they thought.” This total disregard to observations made by non-scientists is a form of professional elitism that is more extreme than that of the protagonist in “Beyond the Walls of Sleep.”

The professors take the sample back to Miskatonic University to run a series of physical and chemical tests with very baffling results. I have reviewed the science behind these tests in previous articles reviewing the “The Colour Out of Space,” so such matters are not discussed here. After the strange results of their tests on the meteorite sample, the three scientists return to the Gardner Farm and visit the impact site once again. Now they final admit that the meteorite is shrinking, noting that its diameter was not barely five feet even though the previous day it was seven feet.

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When the scientists collect another sample, they gouge more deeply into the meteorite and uncover a strange globule that has the same strange colour found when they heated and placed the first sample under a spectroscope. One of the professors hits the globule with a hammer and it bursts with a “nervous little pop.” Nothing visible was emitted and no other globules were found in the meteorite. The scientist take the second sample to the laboratories at Miskatonic, run some more tests but still could not identify the exact composition of the sample and “…at the end of the tests the college scientists were forced to own that they could not place it. It was nothing of this earth, but a piece of the great outside; and as such dowered with outside properties and obedient to outside laws.”

IMG_2687                                                 An illustration of some of the chemical tests run by the Miskatonic University scientists in the Necronomicon Press (2015) chapbook of “The Colour Out of Space.” Illustration by Jason C. Eckhardt

By the third visit, after an evening thunderstorm, none of the meteorite was left – it completely vanished. At this point the scientists just give up and lose interest, which shocks me. Any other scientist that I know would have at least sampled the surrounding soil and test it to see if it emitted the same strange colour as the meteorite. This would have at least supported the hypothesis that the meteorite somehow contaminated the soil with some type of volatile compound, which may also contaminate the associated groundwater. However, after all of the direct physical evidence disappeared so did the Miskatonic scientists.

Even in the following spring when some of the locals brought to their attention that the skunk-cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) were exhibiting some abnormal growth and possessed some strange colours, the scientists’ response was, “The plants were certainly odd, but all skunk-cabbages are more or less odd in shape and odour and hue. Perhaps some mineral element from the stone had entered the soil, but it would soon be washed away.” Really? Skunk-cabbage is a strange looking plant that is foul-smelling and is one of the first plants to be observed leafing out near streams and in wetlands in late winter / early spring. However, it does not emit a strange colour. None of the scientists from Miskatonic hypothesized that the meteorite may have contaminated the soil and groundwater, after hearing about the skunk-cabbage emitting a strange colour?

Skunk Cabbage                    Skunk-cabbages emerging from the ground in early spring

I find the absence of any measurable degree of curiosity by the Miskatonic scientists to be absolutely stunning. The meteor hit the Gardner Farm in June so the student body was home for the summer. By spring, classes were back in session. Is it possible that the scientists had a passing interest in the meteorite because they had more time on their hands over the summer months but once the academic year began this interest waned? If true, find this explanation sad to say the least.

The scientists continued to express their lack of scientific curiosity through the rest of the story, and part of this can be attributed to an “ivory tower” attitude that the reports coming from the Gardner Farm was just superstitious folklore. Even toward the end of the tale when an investigation team was assembled to inspect the farm, none of the Miskatonic scientists were involved. The team comprised of Ammi Pierce (neighbor of the Gardner’s), three police officers, the County coroner, a medical examiner and the veterinarian who treated the Gardner animals. Were the Miskatonic scientists so ineffective in their past dealings with the meteorite and its impacts that no one even bothered to ask them to join the investigation?

the_colour_out_of_space_by_verreaux-d59u4pb The Colour Out of Space by Verreaux (www.deivantart.com)

Finally, when samples of the residual dust left on the farm was taken to Miskatonic University, it gave off the same colorimetric spectrum observed under the spectroscope as the meteorite samples. This supported the idea of some ecological contamination. I completely understand that ecosystem ecology was in its infancy in the early 20th century, but this is some pretty compelling data to support the idea that the mortality associated with the farm was directly attributed to the meteorite and the idea that any mineral element would simply be washed away as being incorrect. Thus, it is surprising to me that there is no additional sampling or concern over more widespread contamination.

To conclude, I find the scientists in “The Colour Out of Space” to be the worst in their profession, at least within the tales of Lovecraft. They have a very disparaging attitude toward non-scientists, possess no natural scientific curiosity and were extremely ineffective in terms of providing any sort of construction guidance over the occurrences at the farm. The Miskatonic scientists were confronted with something outside of our reality or at least within the realm of our understanding of physical / chemical laws and instead of trying to understand it they simply gave up when back to grading papers. Such a lack of curiosity and concern over the environment or individuals can lead to variety of problems such as the spread of invasive species or the contamination of drinking water. Thus, I find the three scientists from Miskatonic University in Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” to the be most dangerous of all of his scientists.

untitled2                   Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” by Asahi Superdry (http://www.deviantart.com)

Next time we are going to begin a detailed, chapter by chapter review of the science associated with At the Mountains of Madness, where some Miskatonic University scientists are shown in a better light. Thank you and Happy New Year! Fred