Category Archives: astronomy

Lovecraftian Scientists – Astronomers from Beyond the Wall of Sleep

In Lovecraft’s tale “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” the entity that possesses Joe Slate leaves his body and in a semi-corporeal state travels through the cosmos to battle Algol, the Demon-Star.  In an intriguing move that will become a staple of Lovecraft’s fiction, he links an actual scientific discovery to a specific instance in this tale. The entity that leaves Earth to do battle with Algol is documented in a newspaper article Lovecraft read on the discovery of an actual astronomical phenomenon.

ed3632b4692360175d47f642cc33a6c7 Beyond the Wall of Sleep by Virgil Finlay

In 1901 the Scottish clergyman Thomas David Anderson discovered Nova Persei (GK Persei). At the end of “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” Lovecraft quotes an article written by Professor Garrett P. Serviss (more on him later) that documents the appearance of Nova Persei and its discovery by Anderson:

“On February 22, 1901, a marvelous new star was discovered by Doctor Anderson of Edinburgh, not very far from Algol. No star had been visible at that point before. Within twenty-four hours the stranger had become so bright that it outshone Capella. In a week or two it had visibly faded, and in the course of a few months, it was hardly discernible with the naked eye.”

Indeed, Nova Persei was documented to become one of the brightest objects in the night sky in 1901. Today we classify Nova Persei as a classical nova and is popularly called a Firework Nebula. It is about 1,500 light-years away from Earth and is thought to have been a binary system consisting of a compact white dwarf star and a swollen cool giant star in a tight orbit with one another. The buildup of mass transferred to the surface of the white dwarf from the giant star through an accretion disk eventually triggered a thermonuclear outburst, blasting stellar material into space without destroying the white dwarf star. This would explain the increased luminosity back in February of 1901. However, even to this day, smaller outbursts are detected.  Did the luminescent being who possessed Joe Slater become a physical manifestation in our space-time as the cooling giant star or was it the white dwarf? Did it attempt, and ultimate fail, in battling Algol?

gkper_block Remnants of Nova Persei (www.nasa.gov)

In the quotation provided above it states that the “new star” is not very far from Algol, which is 93 light years from Earth (The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft by Leslie S. Klinger, 2014).  According to Klinger this means that the actual occurrence of the nova would have taken not in 1901 but approximately 93 years earlier – in 1808. However, it has been established that Nova Persei is about 1,500 light years away, which actually means that Anderson’s discovery of the bright nova in 1901 was actually documenting an event that occurred in the year 401.  Still we do not know if the luminescent being that possessed Joe Slate could travel through time as easily as space so its existence was not limited to strictly linear time as it is with us. Or, did the being miscalculate the distance between Algol and where it appeared as Nova Persei, which contributed to its ultimate failure in completing its mission.

As cited by Lovecraft, the article that concludes “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” was written by Professor Garrett P. Serviss. According to S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Lovecraft essentially took that quoted passage directly from Serviss’s book Astronomy with the Naked Eye written in 1908 (An H.P Lovecraft Encyclopedia, published in 2001). Lovecraft was well documented to be a fan of Serviss’s fiction and non-fiction.

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Garrett P. Serviss (1851-1929) was an astronomer, a popularizer of astronomy and an early science fiction writer (Klinger, 2014). Based on what I have read about Serviss, in particular by Lovecraft, he seems to have been a “Carl Sagan” of the early 20th century. That is, he made science, primarily astronomy, readily available and accessible to a general audience, which was hungry for such information at this point in history. Indeed, Serviss had a unique talent in describing and presenting scientific ideas and concepts in a clear and direct manner to a layperson with little to no scientific training. Serviss definitely had a flare in writing about scientific topics in a very literary manner.

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from http://www.wickipedia.com

For example, in an article called “October Skies” for the Providence Evening News, 49, No 104, 2 October 1918, Lovecraft wrote that in referring to the absence of other bright stars in the vicinity of Fomalhaut, Serviss described that star as “a distant watch-fire gleaming in the midst of a lonely prairie.” Such passages obviously stirred Lovecraft’s imagination for all things cosmic. In the same article Lovecraft himself briefly described Fomalhaut as a strangely fascinating orb (Collected Essays, Volume 3: Science H.P. Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi, 2005). Even today this statement holds true. Fomalhaut is actually a triple star system and was one of the first stars where an exoplanet was actually visible to the eye in photographic images (Science, November, 2008). However, unlike our solar system, the planet Fomalhaut b is constantly plowing through a series of debris disks that surround this star system.

Fomalhaut_with_Disk_Ring_and_extrasolar_planet_b_www.earthsky.org

Fomalhaut system with the identification of the first exoplanet to be visually confirmed (www.earthsky.org)

To conclude, Lovecraft did enjoy Serviss’s fictional and non-fictional writings. Lovecraft frequently referred to Serviss’s book Astronomy with the Naked Eye in his astronomical articles. Additionally, he stated that Serviss and another astronomer Richard A. Proctor were “…two popular astronomical writers, similar in many ways, have by means of their double gifts of scientific and literary skill accomplished marvels in dissipating superstition and propagating truth…” (Joshi, 2005). Again, to me Serviss sounds like the Carl Sagan of the early 20th century.

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Artist’s conception of Fomalhaut b moving through the debris disks of the Fomalhaut star system (www.earthsky.org)

Next time we will discuss a very different type of Lovecraftian scientist – Crawford Tillinghast in the tale “From Beyond.” Thank you – Fred.

 

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H.P. Lovecraft and the Influence Eclipses Had on Him

solar-eclipse-www.nj.com               The 21st August 2017 solar eclipse (www.nj.com)T

Last month’s total solar eclipse occurred on the 21st of August 2017, one day after H.P. Lovecraft’s birthday.  The last total solar eclipse through the continental United States before this year was 26 February 1979; before that the last total solar eclipse was on 8 June 1918.  Surprisingly I could find no reference to it in Lovecraft’s essays on astronomy. However, by 1918 Lovecraft was shifting the majority of his writing from astronomical observations to fiction. Lovecraft did note partial or total solar eclipses in April 1903, June 1908, June 1909, January 1916 and January 1917. He also noted a solar eclipse that was observed as a partial one in the northeastern part of the United States on 21st August 1914 (Joshi, 2004), 103 years before the one we just observed last month.

The last time Lovecraft reported on upcoming eclipses in his astronomical articles was in the 1 December 1917 edition of the Evening News.  In the article Lovecraft states, “Two eclipses will occur this month, an annular eclipse of the sun and total eclipse of the moon. The solar eclipse, which occurs on the 14th, will be invisible at Providence, but visible in the Antarctic regions and the southern parts of the American and Australian continents. The lunar eclipse falls on the 28th and will be generally visible here, except for the final emergence of the moon from the earth’s penumbra, which will take place after our satellite has set in the morning” (Joshi, 2004).

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Just for clarification, a lunar eclipse is where the sun, Earth and moon are aligned with Earth in the middle. During a total lunar eclipse, direct sunlight is completely blocked by the Earth’s shadow so the only light observed is that refracted through Earth’s shadow. Lunar eclipses give the moon a reddish color, sometimes called a blood moon, due to the scattering of more blue light and more red light being received by our eyes.

Luna-roja A lunar eclipse

In contrast, a solar eclipse such as the one that occurred last month, is when the sun, Earth and moon are aligned with the moon between the sun and the Earth. For a solar eclipse, this conjunction of the three bodies can only occur during a new moon, which is the first phase of the moon where it and the sun have the same elliptical longitude.

Solar_lunar_eclipse_diagram

While Lovecraft did not appear to officially document any more eclipses in astronomical articles after the end of 1917, he did note a time when he traveled to Boston to spend time with W. Paul Cook in late August 1932. They then went to Newburyport to see a total solar eclipse.  Lovecraft noted “The landscape did not change in tone until the solar crescent was rather small, & then a kind of sunset vividness became apparent. When the crescent waned to extreme thinness, the scene grew strange & spectral – an almost deathlike quality inhering in the sickly yellowish light” (Joshi, 2014).

It should be noted a particular solar eclipse did contribute toward a major change in Lovecraft’s view of the Cosmos, specifically in reference to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Isaacs Newton and physicists since him have 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.

BLOG_www.solar-eclipse.earth_einstein_1140w483_300dpi-min_1Gravity being the result of distortions in space-time due to mass (www.solar-eclipse.earth) 

When Einstein initially proposed this idea most of the scientific community did not think much of the hypothesis. Like many of Einstein’s ideas, it was very strange 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. Einstein knew that no one would take his idea seriously if it could not be empirically tested and validated. 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. His results confirmed 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.

Negative_photo_of_the_1919_solar_eclipse_medium                                                                                          Negative photo of the 1919 solar eclipse, which confirmed Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity

The confirmation of the Theory of General Relativity through the collection of empirical data during a solar eclipse had a profound impact on Lovecraft’s philosophical view of the Cosmos. For example, in a letter to his friend James F. Morton, Lovecraft stated that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity throws our world and perception of reality into chaos, making the cosmos a jest or as he put it: “All the cosmos is a jest, and fit to be treated only as a jest, and one thing is as true as another” (S.T. Joshi’s I Am Providence:  The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft from Hippocampus Press, 2013).

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While initially Lovecraft actually appears a little distressed over the confirmation of the Theory of General Relativity, he did eventually come to terms with its concepts as demonstrated in his fiction. While some have been critical of Lovecraft’s use or distorted use of Einstein’s Theories in his fiction, it was still innovative story writing at the time – using cutting edge physics and science in horror fiction. Some of the most interesting “connections” recognized by Lovecraft and incorporated into this cosmic fiction included the importance of non-Euclidean geometry and math in a “curved space-time” Einsteinian universe. Thus, of all of the solar eclipses Lovecraft documented in his life, the one off the west coast of Africa on 29th of May 1919 probably had the largest impact on him as a writer.

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Next time we will discuss the one story of Lovecraft’s where an eclipse was an important component of the tale – The Other Gods. Thank you – Fred.

November Events in the Lovecraftian Solar System

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One of H.P. Lovecraft’s loves in life was astronomy and before he became a master of weird fiction, he observed and documented the events of the night sky.  Much of what he documented and wrote about can be found in S.T. Joshi’s Collected Essays, Volume 3: Science by H.P. Lovecraft (Hippocampus Press; 2005). There is a lot of astronomical activities in November 2016 so I thought I would bring them to everyone’s attention.

Jupiter can be observed in the predawn hours in November.  Additionally, Venus can be seen as a very bright, white object in the early evening, western sky.

venus-the-morning-star Venus, The Morning Star (www.nakedeyeplanets.com)

Currently, the Leonid meteor showers are underway, which will peak in the predawn hours of the 17th of November and end around the 3rd of December.  The Leonid showers is the remnants of material left behind from repeated passages of Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle crossing Earth’s orbit (www.weather.com). Lovecraft frequently observed and documented the Leonid “shooting stars” in the fall of 1906, 1907, 1908, 1914, 1916 and 1917 (Joshi, 2005).

In addition to the Leonids, the Taurid meteor showers will begin on the 12th of November. These meteor showers originate from material from Comet 2P/Encke. Lovecraft noted these showers in 1907 (Joshi, 2005). However, the real event in November is a Super moon, where the moon will be the largest it will appear in almost 70 years.

www-earthskyscience-com                     Meteors in the Night Sky by Linda Cook (www.earthskyscience.com)

A Super moon, also known as the Beaver moon or Frost moon, is a full moon that occurs when the moon’s elliptical orbit brings it closest to the Earth. This unusually large moon will occur on the 14th of November (Monday). The Super moon will look 14% larger than normal and will be 30% brighter than an average full moon!  This is a once in a life time event so check it out if you get a chance. The last Super moon was in January of 1948 and the next one is not expected until November of 2034. By the way, the Super moon is not the Harvest moon, which is a full moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox.

While Lovecraft periodically mentions the Harvest moon in his astronomical essays, there is no mention of Super moon, which is not surprising since it is not an official astronomical term and was not given its name until 1979. In addition, the term Super moon was first coined by an astrologer. Given Lovecraft’s total contempt for the pseudoscience of astrology he probably would have used one of the alternative names such as Beaver moon or Frost moon. However, again, if you get a chance please check out the Super moon this Monday (14th of November) – who know what the moon brings? Thank you – Fred.

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