Tag Archives: astronomy

How the Universe Expanded in H.P. Lovecraft’s Lifetime, Part 1

In the year 964, the Persian astronomer al-Sufi (Azophi) described a “little cloud” in the constellation of Andromeda. This is one of the first documented observations in human history of another galaxy (To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science by Steven Weinberg, 2016).  However, it would not be until the early 20th century when this little cloud would be recognized as the Galaxy Andromeda, also known as Messier 31, M31 or NGC 224.

07_Abd_al-Rahman_al-Sufi Abd al Rahman al Sufi, Persian astronomer, illustrated by Felix Leon.

In the early 20th century the Universe was a lot smaller.  In 1915 the Universe was thought to consist of a single and static galaxy – the Milky Way (Einstein’s Cosmos: How Albert Einstein’s Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time by Michio Kaku, 2004).  However, through Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the observations of the red shift by Edward Hubble, the Universe was found to be expanding at an accelerated speed. In addition, advances in telescope technology revealed that many of the celestial bodies identified as nebula or clusters, were actually galaxies. It was Hubble’s work in the 1920’s that finally squashed the theory of a one-galaxy universe. Within the span of a one year of Hubble’s research and observations, the Universe went from a single galaxy full of approximately hundred billion stars to billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars (Kaku, 2004).

This monumental shift and expansion of the Universe – from one galaxy surrounded by nebula and clusters to one containing of billions of galaxies – occurred during Lovecraft’s lifetime and it interesting to note that there are some interesting references to this expansion in his fiction. However, when Lovecraft’s writings were chiefly astronomical in nature, from 1906 to 1918 (Collected Essays Volume 3: Science H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi, 2005), the Galaxy was essentially thought of as our Universe is a starless, ether-filled void.

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In H.P. Lovecraft’s early astronomical writings he frequently used to word galaxy to describe the Universe. This idea that the Universe was essentially the Milky Way was proposed by Sir William Herschel (1738-1822), composer and astronomer best known for discovering the planet Uranus.

Lovecraft actually discussed Herschel’s observations that led to his Milky Way Universe hypothesis in his article “August Skies” in Providence Evening News, 1917 (Collected Essays Volume 3: Science H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi, 2005). Based on Herschel’s observations most of the stars were found in a great circle or broad circular, roughly corresponding to the Galactic Plane.  Stars outside of this belt were said to be few and scattered (Joshi, 2005).  This let to Herschel to the hypothesis that “…the visible stellar universe to consist of an immense cluster of stars, the components disposed with moderate uniformity and the whole so shaped that it forms a thin flat disc of incredible magnitude, near whose centre lies our own solar system.” While his description of our home galaxy is fairly accurate, Hershel was incorrect in thinking our solar system in in the center.  In fact, as Carl Sagan has stated we are in the suburbs or countryside of the galaxy.  We are not in any important place in the Milky Way.

universetoday.com.sunmilkyway Our position in the Milky Way Galaxy (www.universetoday.com)

While the general thought in the early 20th century was that the Milky Way was essentially the Universe, Lovecraft did state in the same article cited above, “That most nebulae belong to our universe seems probable, thought it was once believed that they, as well as clusters, are other universe, or external Galaxies, as it were.” This paragraph in the 1917 article concludes with the following:

“Whether or not such things as other universes do exist, is a question of the highest interest, involving conceptions of the most awful grandeur. It is very likely that these colossal universes of suns are widely scattered through boundless space, though separated by such terrifying and abysmal distances that their light, sent on its way at the time of their creation, has not yet reached from one to the other. It were unless here to speak of the ultimate confines of space itself. If the monstrous distances dealt with in the ordinary study of astronomy be stupefying in their immensity, what may be said of infinity itself? The idea of a boundary to all space is even more repellent than the terrible conception of the illimitable.”

Frosty_Drew_Milky_Way_www.charlestowncitizens.org A view of the Milky Way in New England (www.charlestowncitizens.org)

Obviously as the quote above suggests, some of Lovecraft’s concepts on cosmic horror stem from his astronomical observations and investigations. In another article “Clusters and Nebulae” in the Ashville [N.C.] Gazette-New, 1915 (Joshi, 2005), Lovecraft states that about 1,000 nebulae have been recorded and a few are actually visible to the naked eye. One of these nebulae he mentions is Andromeda. Again, at the time Andromeda was identified as a nebula; however, we now know it’s a galaxy composed of approximately 1 trillion stars. Based on the latest observations made with the Hubble telescope there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in the universe, however, this number is more than likely to at least double with improvements in telescope technology.

m31_comolli_2193 The Andromeda Galaxy, also known as M31

In conclusion, when Lovecraft was writing his articles on astronomy, the Milky Way was considered to be an “island universe” surrounded by nebulae and clusters. However, on 30 December 1924 Edwin Hubble publicly announced the discovery of other galaxies, making our universe a much bigger place. This announcement must have had an incredible impact on Lovecraft; however, by the 1920’s he focused his writing on fiction instead of articles on astronomy. Next time we will discuss how Hubble’s radical change of our view of the universe permeated into Lovecraft’s later fiction. Thank you – Fred.

edwin_hubble_large_bbci.co.uk          Edwin Hubble (www.bbci.co.uk)

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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Additional Notes on Venus

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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

 

 

Lovecraft, Astrology and Superstition

For how much Lovecraft loved Astronomy, he found Astrology completely ridiculous calling it a pseudo-science.  In fact, he actually felt stronger than that.  Check out this quote, the first paragraph in his letter “Science versus Charlatanry”, from Joshi’s Collected Essays, Volume 3 (2005):

“It is an unfortunate fact that every man who seeks to disseminate knowledge must contend not only against ignorance itself, but against false instruction as well.  No sooner do we deem ourselves free from a particularly gross superstition, than we are confronted by some enemy to learning who would set aside all the intellectual progress of years, and plunge us back into the darkness of mediaveal disbelief.”  HPL

This letter was submitted to The Evening News and was specifically addressed to Mr. Hartmann, a proponent of Astrology.

As described by Joshi, the Evening News published a series of letters by both Lovecraft and Hartmann on Astrology and its value (if any, other than a footnote of human superstition that was originally entwined with Astronomy).

As sort of an extreme Astronomical version of Richard Dawkins, not only did Lovecraft say that Astrology is not a true science since it does not follow the same methodology and logic, he also stated that those who preach or push Astrology will drag humanity into a “new dark age”, which is funny because in the opening quote from Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft said that if we are not careful science will do the exact same thing!  However, two major differences, Call of Cthulhu is fiction and second the opening quote is a warning about how the misuse of science can negatively impact humanity, where with Astrology Lovecraft says taking it serious will undermine all of our scientific and technological effort to date (ceria the early 20th century).

To say Lovecraft had absolutely no tolerance for people who believed in Astrology or any other concept of Superstition would be an understatement.  In his notes for “The Cancer of Superstition”, which was to be a book arguing against superstition to be commissioned by Harry Houdini, Lovecraft said “Lack of all scientific basis – persists only through mental indolence of those who neglect to assimilate and correlate results of modern science.” Again, this is from Joshi’s Collected Essays Vol. 3.

Based on that quote above, you get the impression that according to Lovecraft if you could not use or understand science, you were being lazy.  Thus, the “lazy alternative” to the hard work of science was superstition.  Given Lovecraft’s love for Astronomy, one can certainly understand how the popularity of Astrology must have really annoyed him.  This gave rise to his scathing letters criticizing both Mr. Hartmann and Astrology as a whole.

Fred