Some Notes on Lovecraft and Pluto

Based on the H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia (Joshi and Schultz, 2001), The Whisperer in Darkness was written between 24 February and 26 September 1930.  The minor-planet, planetesimal, or dwarf-planet Pluto was discovered by Clyde W. Tombaugh on 18 February 1930.  However, the official announcement of its discovery was made on 14 March 1930 (Joshi and Schultz, 2001).  Thus, while the discovery of Pluto did not inspire HPL to begin writing The Whisperer in Darkness it obviously had a huge impact on the development of the story.  As noted by Joshi and Schultz, HPL wrote to his friend James F. Morton, “Whatcha thinka the NEW PLANET?  HOT STUFF!!!”

At the time the discovery of Pluto was big news; it was hoped that a ninth planet would be discovered beyond Neptune to explain the slight but real irregularities in the motion of Uranus even after the perturbations of Neptune were accounted for (Planets Beyond: Discovering the Outer Solar System by Mark Littmann).  However, over the decades, through a series of various methodologies, estimates of the actual size of Pluto have declined and thus Pluto could not account for such irregularities.  In fact, Pluto is not only smaller than Earth but it is actually smaller than our moon (see below).  It would take about 450 Plutos to equal the mass of the Earth!

Size comparison (www.bibalex.org)
Size comparison (www.bibalex.org)

In 1978 Pluto’s moon – Charon – was discovered by James W. Christy.  In turn, the Pluto – Charon system inherited the title of the having the largest moon / planet size ratio for the entire solar system.  This title was previously held by the Earth-moon system.

Everyone now is familiar with the controversy over whether Pluto should be considered a planet.  In 2006 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) developed a set of criteria to define a celestial body as a planet and Pluto did not fall into this classification, primarily due to the fact that Pluto does not “clear the neighborhood around its orbit.”  This and the fact that other, similarly sized celestial bodies were discovered beyond Pluto resulted in it being re-classified as a “dwarf-planet.”

What would HPL have thought of this controversy?  Based on his writings and views associated with progress in science, I think at first he would balked at the idea of demoting Pluto down to a non-planet status but over time, and after reading the reasons why astronomers decided on this change, I think he would have eventually agreed and embraced it.

The last comment I will make about Pluto is its atmosphere.  It takes about 248 years for Pluto to make one revolution around the sun.  In addition, based on a number of indirect observations it is hypothesized that Pluto’s atmosphere is methane, frozen to the ground.  However, during a few years when the dwarf-planet is closest to the sun it actually gets warm enough for some of the methane to vaporize.  I wonder what else is released from the frozen atmosphere of Pluto every 240 or so years?

In 2006 the “New Horizons” spacecraft was launched and is heading to Pluto.   It is more than halfway there and it will fly pass Pluto in July 2015.  This is the first probe of humanity’s to fly past Yuggoth.  What will it find?  Will it find oceans of semi-frozen methane slowly vaporizing into interstellar space while the stars continue to shine?  Or will it find…”black streets where abominable blasphemies moved among hideous gardens of those greyish nodding fungi and vast black windowless towers?” – from Ramsey Campbell’s The Tower of Yuggoth.

A Mi-Go on Pluto (illustration by the talented artist Steve Maschuck)

Next time we talk about the “inhabitants” of Pluto (or Yuggoth) – the Mi-Go.  Thank you.  Fred.

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