Lovecraft in Space by Belthazubel (www.deviantart.com)
Last year we discussed the eight planets in the Lovecraftian solar system over a series of articles. Over the next few weeks we will continue this review of the Lovecraftian solar system, starting with comets. Lovecraft’s fascination with astronomy began when he was very young and with a book from his grandmother’s collection called Geography of the Heavens (from an article on www.io9.com by Robbie Gonzalez).
This is a plate from the book Geography of the Heavens (www.io9.com)
Comets are essentially an icy body that travels through space releasing gas or dust. They are best described as snowy dirtballs and contain dust, ice, carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane and other material (www.space.com). In Lovecraft’s day, very little was known about the composition of comets. In an article he wrote about comets in November 1906 called “The Wanderers of Our System” Lovecraft stated, “Comets are extremely light in density, but otherwise from that, little concerning their physical conditions is known, the most prevalent theory being that they are composed of minute particles, enclosed in atmospheres.” (from Collected Essays, Volume 3: Science by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi, 2005).
The first comet Lovecraft observed in his life was Borelli’s Comet in August 1903. In a notebook Lovecraft kept, called “Astronomical Observations Made,” he included lengthy discussions of Halley’s Comet observed on May 26, 1910 and Delavan’s Comet on September 16-17, 1914 (I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft, by S.T. Joshi, 2013).
Some of the part of a comet (www.wikipedia.com)
It is interesting to note that Lovecraft wrote articles on astronomy for the Evening News. In the same paper, J.F. Hartmann had an article published called “Astrology and the European War.” The article was published in September 4, 1914, three days after Lovecraft’s monthly astronomy article and in the same location where Lovecraft’s articles typically appeared. Lovecraft had no patience for the subject of astrology and thus a series of debate letters and articles were published in the paper between Lovecraft and Hartmann. In a letter to his friend Maurice W. Moe Lovecraft noted “Recently a quack named Hartmann, a devotee of the pseudo-science of Astrology, commenced to disseminate the usual pernicious fallacies of the occult art thought he columns of The News, so that in the interests of true Astronomy I was forced into a campaign of invective and satire.” (Joshi, 2013).
In one of the more amusing articles Lovecraft wrote a satirical piece under the name Isaac Bickerstaffe, Jr. in October 24, 1914 titled “Delavan’s Comet and Astrology.” In it Lovecraft, or should I say Bickerstaffe, predicted that Delavan’s Comet would hit the earth in the distance future, the year 4898, and take a large portion of humanity to Venus to live, which is a good thing since he predicted that the world would explode 56 years later in the year 4954 due to increased volcanic activity. Lovecraft, being a great “astrologer”, actually predicted the exact day the earth would explode – February 26, 4954 (Joshi, 2005). Unfortunately, while humanity will survive on Venus, in typical Lovecraftian fashion, the explosion of the Earth will create a lot of damage to Venus and its new inhabitants. Needless to say, this strange parody on the value of astrology somewhat stunned Lovecraft’s intellectual adversary Hartmann (Joshi, 2014).
Halley’s Comet (www.wikipedia.com)
In an article for the Ashville [N.C.] Gazette-News in March 1915, Lovecraft reviewed what was known about the comet as of the early 20th century. In it he briefly reviewed and compared periodic comets (those that revolve around the sun in some type of orbit) to solitary comets (those that appear from deep space and return back into the void never to be seen again). He also had a brief discussion on some famous comets and once again reviewed what comets were thought to be composed of at the time. Lovecraft states that comets were thought to be composed of extremely small solid meteoric masses but spread very far apart and possessing individual gaseous materials. Lovecraft mentioned that some say comets are mainly self-luminous through sparks of electricity but also cited that the reflection of light from the sun contributes to this as well. We now know that comets are not self-luminescent.
Lovecraft also notes in the article that the tails of a comet can be millions of miles long and that the Earth has passed through portions of these tails in both 1861 and 1910. In spite of the popular media hype of the time, nothing unusual occurred. There was concern during these past occurrences that cyanogen gas in the tail of the comets would kill all of life on Earth. Some people took advantage of people’s fears of this situation (see below).
It was not until the early 1950’s when Fred Lawrence Whipple proposed that comets were essentially dirty snowballs and that their tails were the result of the volatilization of gases and the evaporation of water. Support for this hypothesis was obtained when some European spacecraft flew through the coma (the nebulous envelope around the nucleus of a comet) of Halley’s Comet in 1986 and photographed evaporating material (www.wikipedia.com). Additional data to support this have been obtained through various spacecraft missions from 2001 to 2014; in addition to water vapor, simple organic molecules such as HCN, HNC and H2CO have been detected on and in comets. This has led some to hypothesize that comets may be the remnants of material that was used in the development of the solar system approximately 4.6 billion years ago. Also, some hypothesize that comets may have delivered water and organic molecules to early Earth. Thus, the raw material that the Elder Things used to create complex, eukaryotic life on Earth may have originated from comets. It makes one wonder what Lovecraft would have thought about with the existing information we have on comets today.
Next time we will talk about how Lovecraft used comets in his tales. Thank you – Fred.
Lovecraft by Anderpeich (www.deivantart.com)