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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 (www.bbci.co.uk)