Sculpture of H.P. Lovecraft with book in one hand and a telescope in another. Artwork by Legiongp (www.deviantart.com)
“The general ignorance of the public as regards the science of astronomy has often been noted and deplored.” This quote was the opening sentence in an article H.P. Lovecraft wrote for the Providence Sunday Journal (26 December 1909), called “Venus and the Public Eye.” Lovecraft goes on to say that in the early evening on Christmas Eve 1909 in the business section of Providence a number of people were looking at something in the sky. Initially Lovecraft was very pleased that they were observing the brilliant beauty of Venus; however, it turned out they thought they were looking at an airship owned by a local merchant, a Mr. Wallace E. Tillinghast of Worcester, Mass. When Lovecraft corrected them that the light was in fact the planet Venus the result was only mild surprise (Collected Essays, Volume 3: Science by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi, 2005). One gets the impression that the observers were disappointed that the light turned out to be Venus and Lovecraft was disappointed that the group were not excited about observing Venus.
Venus (the morning star) is the brightest object in the sky in this photograph; the second brightest is Jupiter (from http://www.wikipedia.com)
Venus has always been considered the sister planet of the Earth since it is similar in dimensions, gravity and density. Obviously being closer to the sun it receives higher amounts of light and heat. Details about the planet’s surface were minimal in Lovecraft’s day due to the extensive cloud cover. Given its similar size to Earth, closer proximity to the sun and cloud cover, the possibility of life on Venus in Lovecraft’s day was real. Many thought of Venus as a hot, steamy jungle world, filled with a wide array of vegetation and perhaps fauna similar to that of the dinosaurs of ancient Earth. Lovecraft did hypothesize that any inhabitants of Venus must rarely see the heavens due to the extensive cloud cover but when their sky was clear “…our terraqueous globe must shine in the heavens of Venus as a brilliant planet, having motions like those of Mars as seen by us” (S.T. Joshi, 2005).
Radar image of the surface of Venus by the Magellan spacecraft (www.blogs.esa.int).
It would not be until 1962, 25 years after Lovecraft’s death that the first probes would visit Venus. The Mariner spaceflights by the US and the Venera and Vega spaceflights by the USSR collected a wide variety of data both orbiting the planet and on the surface. Venus is a world with high temperatures (surface temperature of 475oC) and pressures, with an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide but also containing nitrogen and oxygen. Thunder and lightning have been detected on Venus as well as inter-annual fluctuations of sulphur dioxide, which is more than likely the result of large-scale volcanic activity. It is probably the closest thing to “hell” in our solar system.
A view of the landing gear of Venera 13 on the surface of Venus before it was destroyed by the high temperature and pressure of the planet (www.blogs.esa.int).
The exploration of this planet will continue; the European Space Agency plans on conducting two flybys to Venus in the near future as part of a mission to Mercury. Venus is a particularly important planet to study since it shows what happens to a world when extremely high concentrations of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide accumulate in the atmosphere, trapping all of the heat from solar radiation. However, in Lovecraft’s time Venus was a stemming jungle-world, filled with its own unique collection of flora and fauna. Next time we will review and discus some of the Venusian life described in “In the Walls of Eryx.” Thank – you. Fred