The Mathematics of the Witch House, Part 1

Opening shot of Stuart Gordon’s movie The Dreams in the Witch House

Mathematics is an important component of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch House.  The main character, Walter Gilman, is a student of non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics at Miskatonic University.   Gilman moves into the upper floor room of a house  with odd / strange angles forming the ceilings and walls.  At one time a known witch, Keziah Mason lived in the house along with her familiar Brown Jenkin (more on him in a later article).  Apparently, Keziah’s magic was essentially the use of complex mathematics and physics to travel through time and space.  Gilman was learning to apply his mathematics to accomplish a similar goal.

Walter Gilman and the witch Keziah Mason from Stuart Gordon’s movie The Dreams in the Witch House

The Dreams in the Witch House is HPL’s interpretation or modernization of the myth of witches, giving a scientific explanation to their magical abilities (Joshi and Schultz, 2001; An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia).  However, in an article titled H.P. Lovecraft and Pseudomathematics in the book Discovering H.P. Lovecraft (edited by Darrell Schweitzer), Robert Weinberg is a little harsh on Lovecraft’s take on the use of mathematics and physics.

While Weinberg states that there was a lot of misinformation being generated through the “translation” of scientific and mathematical accomplishments in early 20th century, he criticizes Lovecraft’s use of such concepts and ideas.  For example, Weinberg states that “non-Euclidean calculus” does not exist and the phase itself is meaningless.  In addition, “quantum physics” is just a fancy way of saying quantum mechanics.  However, more critical than the terms HPL comes up with is Weinberg’s concluding comment in the article:

“Unfortunately, while his grasp of science and mathematics might have been greater than the layman, it was not strong enough to present a convincing picture to the careful reader.  Futher, Lovecraft made the cardinal mistake of speculation of the impossible.  While to the non-scientist, this may not sound like much of a sin, it is the cardinal mistake of the uninformed.” – Weinberg.

“Mistake of speculation of the impossible?” – is that a problem here?  I am a scientist and I can appreciate that Lovecraft is crafting fiction, using these phases and concepts to convey a story, not to give a lecture on mathematics.  I know that the Earth is not hollow but I can enjoy a story about adventures in a hollow Earth (as long as it’s an interesting story).  I can’t tell you how many times I see basic concepts of biology and evolution violated in movies and books but I don’t dismiss the art itself.  Sure some of the ideas seem to be so ridiculous (as a biologist) that I may laugh at it, even though that may not have been the intention of the artist.  While some movies or stories may blatantly show a lack of understanding of basic concepts of biology, I can still enjoy the fiction, particularly weird fiction.

I think Mr. Weinberg was being much to harsh in this article.  I can understand contrasting HPL’s pseudomathematics to existing mathematics but to chastise HPL over his partial understanding of the subject in his stories is not needed.

The Dreams in the Witch House by Enrique Cedillo

Ironically, I found an article on HPL and mathematics, written by a professor of mathematics.  The article is called H.P. Lovecraft: A Horror in Higher Dimensions (written by Thomas Hull of Merrimack College, North Andover, MA).  The article appeared in Math Horizons, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Feb. 2006), pp. 10-12, published by the Mathematical Association of America (www.maa.org).  In the article, it is clearly understood that HPL was not a mathematician or scientist, however, Hull did state – “Lovecraft’s use of strange geometry is effective for both the mathematical literate and the layman.”

While I do not know Mr. Weinberg’s background and experience with science and math, he is a well known and respected writer and editor of many volumes of weird fiction.  I just find it amusing that the writer was very critical of HPL’s pseudomathematics, but the mathematician found it effective.  Whether the phrases or concepts HPL used were real or imaginary, they sparked my imagination when I was a boy and that’s what is great about Lovecraft’s work – it make you curious to know more about both the real and the unreal.

Next time we will be talking about the concept of hyperspace and how Keziah and Walter used mathematics to travel through time and space – Thank you, Fred.

The witch Keziah Mason from Stuart Gordon’s movie The Dreams in the Witch House

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19 thoughts on “The Mathematics of the Witch House, Part 1

  1. This is, as usual, terrific, but I’d like to see you discuss what exactly was seen as the problem with HPL’s geometric or mathematical thought in the story. I seem to remember it being that someone in one dimension can never go into another one? He had a very specific thing for which he raked the poor Old Gent over the coals, I think.

    1. Hey Sean – thank you for the kind words. Yes, I will be addressing HPL’s concepts of higher dimensions and Mr. Weinberg’s criticism of this in an upcoming article. The upcoming article for this week will discuss hyperspace, while the subsequent article will discuss higher dimensions. Thank again! Fred

  2. I’m no mathematician and *I* knew, the first time I read it, at the age of 13 or 14, that there was no such thing as “Non-Euclidean Calculus.” That didn’t matter; I’ve read about all sorts of similar allamagoosas and offogs in countless sci-fi/horror tales. DREAMS isn’t a math book. If it was, I would have never finished it, alas. One more reason I push cabbage for a living, rather than working for NASA.

    1. Hey Gomro – I agree with you! I am not mathematician as well but it didn’t matter when reading Dreams in the Witch House. HPL knew how to create mood and atmosphere and get you interested in pursuing other subjects through his stories. However, in some upcoming articles I will talk about how innovative HPL’s ideas were and how some of recent / current work in theoretical physics somewhat correlates with those ideas. Thank you for the comment. Fred

  3. While I cannot pretend to have read the article I think the idea of saying almost anything is “impossible” as a scientist is preposterous. Science is a method, a mode of inquiry– not a fixed-in-stone set of dogmatic positions. Questions come from science– answers come from religion. If Non-Euclidian geometry does not exist I love this: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-Euclidean_geometry

    That Lovecraft’s narrative voice suggests these improbabilities that is where the fearful potency dwells. It is the sheer maddening paradoxicality that veers one toward madness. Just imagine how deficient our understanding would be of the wide world if paradigms did not shift and orthodoxy and normal science strangled all of our thinking? Surely Arthur C. Clarke’s famous axiom about technology and magic is germane to the Lovcraftian tale?

    I don’t think decontextualizing a person from their time and cultural context is a robust critical platform. It is like wondering about Mark Twain’s appropriate use of ethnicist descriptors in Tom Sawyer. Ultimately, I imagine a science which begins to point out how in fact limited and childish our understanding actually is and how that is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die. . .
    There are more things in R’lyeh than dreamt of in your Physics Mr. Marsh.

    1. Again, another thoughtful response. I also agree with you, which is why Mr. Weinberg’s article surprised me. I always like to say, “science is not math”. Observing nature, testing hypotheses and developing ideas / concepts to explain and predict nature is how science works. To move forward in science this requires varying lines of thought. To quote Michio Kaku in this book – Hyperspace: A scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and The Tenth Dimension – “Scientific revolutions, almost by definition, defy common sense”.

      Obviously, HPL wrote fiction and he would have been the first to point this out. With that said, to criticize his fiction (or anyone’s fiction) because it does not present real or probable concepts strips some of the magic or imagination of that particular piece of art. Again, thank you for the response! Fred

  4. I went to college with Robert Weinberg so I’m quite familiar with his educational background. He and I both graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology (where we ran the only club that, as far as I know, the college ever had for SF fans – one which, alas, did not survive our graduation.) The Stevens education is very intense and interdisciplinary. I didn’t get an elective (or even a course that was specific to my major, Chemistry) until the 2nd semester of my Junior year because they want all students in the science curriculum to have as broad a base as possible in all of the physical sciences and in math before even beginning to specialize. I have not read his piece so I can’t comment on whether or not he was being overly persnickety, but our shared educational background would tend to make one err, if at all, in the direction of rigor. This doesn’t mean we can’t willingly suspend disbelief. I feel strongly that time travel is impossible, but I’m devoted to Doctor Who. But if the science or math is foregrounded, rather than being taken for granted or hand-waved, it is irksome if it isn’t right.

    1. Hey Bill – thank you for the background on your education and Mr. Weinberg’s. As I investigate this, I think you hit it on the head relative to scientific rigor. I have been doing a little research into this and a lot of HPL’s ideas on this, particularly relative to The Dreams in the Witch House, originate from papers and presentations given by Georg Bernhard Riemann who was sort of the “grandfather” of non-Euclidean geometry and the pre-concepts of hyperspace. Riemann “shook” the foundation of Euclidean geometry in the mid-1800’s with his ideas. Reading Mr. Weinberg’s article, I get the impression his philosophy on this subject echoed those of Euclid, Aristotle, and Ptolemy; that the fourth dimension is impossible (this refers to the fourth dimension not as time but as another spatial dimension). I will go into more detail on this subject in the next two articles. Again, thank you for your insight into this matter. Fred

  5. I’ve never heard anyone criticize these famous lines from STAR WARS:
    “General Dodonna: Well, the Empire doesn’t consider a small one-man fighter to be any threat, or they’d have a tighter defense. An analysis of the plans provided by Princess Leia has demonstrated a weakness in the battle station. But the approach will not be easy. You are required to maneuver straight down this trench and skim the surface to this point. The target area is ONLY TWO METERS wide. It’s a small thermal exhaust port, right below the main port. The shaft leads directly to the reactor system. A precise hit will start a chain reaction which should destroy the station. Only a precise hit will set off a chain reaction. The shaft is ray-shielded, so you’ll have to use proton torpedoes.

    Wedge Antilles (Red 2): THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE! EVEN FOR A COMPUTER.

    Luke: It’s not impossible. I used to bullseye WOMP RATS in my T-16 back home, THEY’RE NOT MUCH BIGGER THAN TWO METERS.

    General Dodonna: Then man your ships. And may the Force be with you.”

    1. I agree! Any speculative fiction can be criticized to some degree or in some manner. I love how Lovecraft elegantly explained the power of ancient witch magic through non-Euclidean math and theoretical physics. In my opinion, this was more elegantly executed than explaining the power of The Force in the Star Wars prequels through the midichlorians; I thought that was clumsily handled. – Thanks for your input – Fred.

  6. I was mostly referring to the fact that 2 meters is about 78 inches. So Star Wars was saying that a computer couldn’t hit a target that was only 78 inches wide, and Womp rats were not much bigger than 78 inches. I’m only 63 inches tall. I don’t know what I would do if I ever saw a 78 inch rat running around. I guess I would call someone like Luke and hope he could bullseye it with his T-16.

    1. Good point but I always give a little leeway when it comes to exobiologoical taxonomy. A “rat” on Tatooine (not sure if I am spelling it correctly) may not be the same as a Terran rat. In addition the Gambian Giant Pouched Rat was suppose to potentially grow up to 3 feet in length, while Coypu, a South American “river rat” can grow up to 2 feet in total length. However, your point is well taken. Thank you!

  7. Hi – Brian. Still going back through older articles.

    Reading it again I am quite appalled by Weinberg’s article. It is FICTION, not SCIENCE – actually, science fiction mixed with horror (= cosmic horror).

    Sorry for restating what you’ve already stated.

    BRIAN O’CONNELL

    1. No problem – I think part of his response was an extension of the scientific thought at the time. Again, thinking of Carl Sagan on the show Cosmos and watching that as a kid – I could not fathom why Weinberg could not understand even just conducting thought experiments on these subjects, particularly when writing fiction!

      Fred

  8. I personally find myriad references of transdimensionalism in many of HPL’s work, most expressively to me in “The Haunter in the Dark”. I personally find the critique by the one guy to be very small-minded, sort of like a crowing of a rooster being strangled. Another story, though it really was more about Tao than mathematics, is, of course, “The Hounds of Tindalos”.

    1. Yes, love that story – I will definitely be doing article in the new future on The Hounds of Tindalos. Thank you for the comments!

      Fred

  9. I must reckon that the expression “non Euclidean calculus” sounds horrible to me and I’m not a mathematician.
    But it’s just a phrase, and how many times is it repeated through the story?
    I always try to be as accurate as possible but in the end I’m writing fantasy or horror stories.
    In that sense, I think Sci Fi is more sensible to facts accuracy because many times the whole thing relies on it. Read a tale about the luxurious jungles in Venus now and isn’t much impressive. But in its time surely looked astonishing.
    If it’s well written, of course.

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