H.P. Lovecraft and Albert Einstein, Part 1

In order to explore how the scientist Albert Einstein’s work impacted the writer H.P. Lovecraft, we need to first discuss Einstein’s contributions to physics and science in general.  Thus, this article will review Einstein’s work from 1905 to the early-1930’s, which is the period of time when Lovecraft would be reading about his work.  The subsequent article will review how HPL incorporated some of Einstein’s concepts and ideas into his stories.

A shot of R’lyeh from “The Call of Cthulhu” movie by the HP Lovecraft Historical Society

If Sir Isaac Newton was the most famous scientist of the 17th – 18th century, and Darwin was the most famous scientist of the 19th century then Albert Einstien was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the most famous scientist of the 20th century.  While chiefly known for his theory of relativity and his famous equation:

which essentially states that mass is simply energy in a different form, Einstein contributed a large number of innovative ideas to physics and science as a whole.  A small sampling of these ideas are displayed in Einstein’s “miracle year” of 1905 (John Farndon, 2007; The Great Scientists: From Euclid to Stephen Hawking).  During that year, Einstein wrote five papers, each one of them truly remarkable.  The first was on the photoelectric effect (when light hits metal, electrons are dislodged from the atoms of the metal).  Einstein used the recently developed quantum theory to show that light behaved like energy, which are emitted in discrete quantities by radiating objects .  In the case of energy these discrete quantities are called quanta.  In the case of light, Einstein suggested these particles are called photons.  Thus, photons could knock electrons off their atoms.  Experiments conducted in 1913 confirmed that Einstein’s idea was correct and for that he won the Nobel Prize in 1921.

A photon knocking an electron off an atom (student.ccbccmd.edu)

Einstein’s second paper was, through his calculations, providing a means of measuring the size of molecules.  For that paper he was awarded his doctorate from the Zurich Polytechnic.

His third paper was a theoretical explanation for Brownian motion – the movement of tiny particles suspended in liquid.  What is cool about this is that I can actually see Brownian motion when looking at particularly tiny algae or bacteria under the microscope.  There is a “vibration” of the particles (including the tiny cells), which is due to background heat energy causing this vibration and collision of paticles – this paper provided futher evidence of the existence of atoms.

brownian motion

A diagram demonstrating Brownian motion (www.tutorvista.com)

The fourth paper was “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, which outlined his Special Theory of Relativity.  In a nutshell, it states that space and time are relative to the observer (an idea that appeared to fascinate Lovecraft).  Put another way, the only reason why we all experience space and time the same way is because we are all moving at the same speed, relative to each other (Farndon, 2007).  This is where the idea comes from that if you could move at the speed of light, time would slow down relative to those not traveling at the speed of light.

Most people are familiar with this scenario: twins, one remains on Earth, the other travels in space at the speed of light.  The special theory of relativity is valid for the twin on Earth but not for the space traveler.  Thus, the one in space ages slower than the one that remained on Earth (www.zamandayolculukcom).

The fifth paper of Einstein’s in 1905 was his famous equation, which states mass is simply energy in a different form.  What is amazing is Einstein worked on these ideas in a purely theoretical format but all were then supported with empirical evidence!

Ten years later (1915) Einstein extended the Special Theory of Relativity to include gravity – which became his General Theory of Relativity.  Newton and physicists since him described gravity as a force – and this concept works well when describing the motions of planets and other “large” bodies.  However, Einstein said gravity was the result of a distortion in space-time, created by the presence of mass (Farndon, 2007).  Thus, the larger the mass of the object, the greater the distortion.

Illustration showing the Earth and the Moon warping space-time

Conceptual display of the distortions in space-time of both the Earth and the moon.  Since Earth has a larger mass than the moon is produces a larger distortion (i.e. gravity).  This is at the heart of the theory of General Relativity (www.bbc.co.uk).

At the time, most of the scientific community did not think much of this hypothesis.  Like many of Einstein’s ideas, it was very strange and innovative and his calculations were difficult to follow.  A key point to Einstein’s idea was that everything would be impacted by these distortions, even light.  He knew that no one would take his idea seriously if it could not be empirically tested and validated – and indeed it was.

In the spring of 1919, the astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington took photographs during a solar eclipse – which is the only time that stars can be seen during the day (when the Sun is out).  His results showed that the light of a star did indeed shift or “bend” when it passed close to the Sun.  This shift was almost exactly as Einstein predicted.  Once again, as I previously mentioned, one of Einstein’s theoretical ideas turned out to be confirmed with empirical data.

In the late 1920’s Einstein was trying to develop a Unified Field Theory, where all laws of nature would be explained by one theory.  Such a theory would link the motion and laws of the stars and planets to sub-atomic particles; in other words the theory of General Relativity would be linked to that of electromagnetism.  Many scientists said Einstein should abandon this line of thought and instead focus on quantum mechanics.  However, through the 1920’s and on Einstein became more involved with world affairs and less in theoretical physics.

To conclude, as the most recognized scientist in the world, even back in the 1910s – 1930s, Lovecraft would have been familiar with Einstein’s work.  Einstein’s ideas frequently worked into popular periodicals and newspapers and his work obviously had an impact on Lovecraft’s imagination.  With this very tiny introduction into some of Einstein’s work, the next article will focus on how Lovecraft integrated many of Einstein’s ideas into his stories.  Thank you – Fred.


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