Tag Archives: meteorite

Lovecraftian Scientists: The Scientists in “The Colour Out of Space” or also known as Scientists Behaving Badly

Colour_IgorVitkovskly The Colour by Igor Vitkovskly

Crawford Tillinghast was a vengeful mad scientist, while Herbert West was cool and calculating, willing to use anyone as a test subject for his reanimation experiments.  However, of the Lovecraftian scientists reviewed to date, the scientists in “The Colour Out of Space” are probably the most dangerous. Instead of being individual “mad scientists” the scientists in “The Colour Out of Space” are elitists and do not have that critical, open minded attitude required in science. Put another way by Carl Sagan, “It pays to keep an open mind but not so open your brains fall out.”

In “The Colour Out of Space” a meteor falls to Earth, landing on farmland owned by Nahum Gardner. Nahum and his wife bring three professors from Miskatonic University to the farm to examine the meteor the day after it arrives. Nahum said the meteor shrank in size and in spite of having some physical evidence to back this claim (“It had shrunk, Nahum said as he pointed out the big brownish mound above the ripped earth and charred grass near the archaic well-sweep in his front yard…”) the professors simply stated “…stones do not shrink.” Thus, the professors would not even entertain or consider the idea that Nahum may be correct, even with the supporting evidence.

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The professors collect a sample of the meteor and place it in a pail since it is still generating heat almost a day after it landed on the farm.  Even when Ammi Pierce’s wife notes that the fragment appears to be burning and getting smaller in the pail, the professors still think nothing of the claim that the meteor is shrinking. Their response to Ms. Pierce’s observation of the shrinking sample was “…perhaps they had taken less than they thought.” This total disregard to observations made by non-scientists is a form of professional elitism that is more extreme than that of the protagonist in “Beyond the Walls of Sleep.”

The professors take the sample back to Miskatonic University to run a series of physical and chemical tests with very baffling results. I have reviewed the science behind these tests in previous articles reviewing the “The Colour Out of Space,” so such matters are not discussed here. After the strange results of their tests on the meteorite sample, the three scientists return to the Gardner Farm and visit the impact site once again. Now they final admit that the meteorite is shrinking, noting that its diameter was not barely five feet even though the previous day it was seven feet.

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When the scientists collect another sample, they gouge more deeply into the meteorite and uncover a strange globule that has the same strange colour found when they heated and placed the first sample under a spectroscope. One of the professors hits the globule with a hammer and it bursts with a “nervous little pop.” Nothing visible was emitted and no other globules were found in the meteorite. The scientist take the second sample to the laboratories at Miskatonic, run some more tests but still could not identify the exact composition of the sample and “…at the end of the tests the college scientists were forced to own that they could not place it. It was nothing of this earth, but a piece of the great outside; and as such dowered with outside properties and obedient to outside laws.”

IMG_2687                                                 An illustration of some of the chemical tests run by the Miskatonic University scientists in the Necronomicon Press (2015) chapbook of “The Colour Out of Space.” Illustration by Jason C. Eckhardt

By the third visit, after an evening thunderstorm, none of the meteorite was left – it completely vanished. At this point the scientists just give up and lose interest, which shocks me. Any other scientist that I know would have at least sampled the surrounding soil and test it to see if it emitted the same strange colour as the meteorite. This would have at least supported the hypothesis that the meteorite somehow contaminated the soil with some type of volatile compound, which may also contaminate the associated groundwater. However, after all of the direct physical evidence disappeared so did the Miskatonic scientists.

Even in the following spring when some of the locals brought to their attention that the skunk-cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) were exhibiting some abnormal growth and possessed some strange colours, the scientists’ response was, “The plants were certainly odd, but all skunk-cabbages are more or less odd in shape and odour and hue. Perhaps some mineral element from the stone had entered the soil, but it would soon be washed away.” Really? Skunk-cabbage is a strange looking plant that is foul-smelling and is one of the first plants to be observed leafing out near streams and in wetlands in late winter / early spring. However, it does not emit a strange colour. None of the scientists from Miskatonic hypothesized that the meteorite may have contaminated the soil and groundwater, after hearing about the skunk-cabbage emitting a strange colour?

Skunk Cabbage                    Skunk-cabbages emerging from the ground in early spring

I find the absence of any measurable degree of curiosity by the Miskatonic scientists to be absolutely stunning. The meteor hit the Gardner Farm in June so the student body was home for the summer. By spring, classes were back in session. Is it possible that the scientists had a passing interest in the meteorite because they had more time on their hands over the summer months but once the academic year began this interest waned? If true, find this explanation sad to say the least.

The scientists continued to express their lack of scientific curiosity through the rest of the story, and part of this can be attributed to an “ivory tower” attitude that the reports coming from the Gardner Farm was just superstitious folklore. Even toward the end of the tale when an investigation team was assembled to inspect the farm, none of the Miskatonic scientists were involved. The team comprised of Ammi Pierce (neighbor of the Gardner’s), three police officers, the County coroner, a medical examiner and the veterinarian who treated the Gardner animals. Were the Miskatonic scientists so ineffective in their past dealings with the meteorite and its impacts that no one even bothered to ask them to join the investigation?

the_colour_out_of_space_by_verreaux-d59u4pb The Colour Out of Space by Verreaux (www.deivantart.com)

Finally, when samples of the residual dust left on the farm was taken to Miskatonic University, it gave off the same colorimetric spectrum observed under the spectroscope as the meteorite samples. This supported the idea of some ecological contamination. I completely understand that ecosystem ecology was in its infancy in the early 20th century, but this is some pretty compelling data to support the idea that the mortality associated with the farm was directly attributed to the meteorite and the idea that any mineral element would simply be washed away as being incorrect. Thus, it is surprising to me that there is no additional sampling or concern over more widespread contamination.

To conclude, I find the scientists in “The Colour Out of Space” to be the worst in their profession, at least within the tales of Lovecraft. They have a very disparaging attitude toward non-scientists, possess no natural scientific curiosity and were extremely ineffective in terms of providing any sort of construction guidance over the occurrences at the farm. The Miskatonic scientists were confronted with something outside of our reality or at least within the realm of our understanding of physical / chemical laws and instead of trying to understand it they simply gave up when back to grading papers. Such a lack of curiosity and concern over the environment or individuals can lead to variety of problems such as the spread of invasive species or the contamination of drinking water. Thus, I find the three scientists from Miskatonic University in Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” to the be most dangerous of all of his scientists.

untitled2                   Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” by Asahi Superdry (http://www.deviantart.com)

Next time we are going to begin a detailed, chapter by chapter review of the science associated with At the Mountains of Madness, where some Miskatonic University scientists are shown in a better light. Thank you and Happy New Year! Fred

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The Chemistry of the Colour Out of Space, Part 2

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“Colour” by Peggy Mintun (www.deviantart.org)

As previously mentioned samples of the meteorite that fell to Earth on the Nahum Gardner farm were collected and analyzed by professors from Miskatonic University.   The sample of the meteorite was determined to generate its own heat and luminosity, to be magnetic but does not contain iron, cobalt or nickel, does not volatilize at temperatures in excess of 3,000 °F, and is slowly shrinking. This article continues to review the chemical assessment conducted on the meteorite sample at Miskatonic University.

The next series of tests with the meteorite sample was with various reagents. In chemistry a reagent is a substance that is used to test the presence of another substance through an observable or recorded chemical reaction. Thus a reagent can be practically any substance or compound. Water and hydrochloric acid were added to the sample with no effect. Nitric acid and aqua regia, which is a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid that has the capacity to dissolve precious metals such as gold and platinum (The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft edited, forward and notes by Leslie S. Klinger, 2014), generated a slight hiss or spatter but with no other effect. A variety of other reagents were applied to the sample including ammonia, caustic soda (sodium hydroxide), alcohol and ether, and carbon disulphide (a frequently used industrial, non-polar solvent that has an “ether-like” odor) with no reaction. It should be noted that in the story HPL called carbon disulphide “nauseous,” which was probably not the compound itself but more than likely due to added commercial impurities such as carbonyl sulfide.

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University chemistry laboratory from the 1890’s (www.ursinus.edu)

When the meteorite sample was completely immersed in an acidic solvent, faint Widmanstätten figures could be seen etched in the material. Widmanstätten figures or patterns of fine, interleaving bands or ribbons called lamellae, found in iron-based meteorites. These patterns appear when an iron-based meteorite is polished and then etched with nitric acid (The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft, edited, introduction and notes by S.T. Joshi, 1999).

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Widmanstätten patterns in a cross-section of a meteorite (www.wikipedia.org)

Again, the meteorite sample was described as oddly soft, almost plastic and when placed in a glass beaker the specimen “faded away” along with the beaker. The strange stone was said to have a strong “affinity” for silicon. The concept of chemical “affinity” is very old and has pre-scientific origins. It was used to describe the “force” that causes chemical reactions such as the combination of two substances to create a new one. In the 18th century affinity tables were created, which were used as a teaching tool or guide on how various substances combine with one another.

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An Affinity Table from 1718 (www.wikipedia.org)

In modern physics and chemistry chemical affinity refers to the property of an atom or compound to combine with another atom or compound of unlike composition. More specifically, this modern concept of chemical affinity is directly linked to our modern theory of the atom. Thus, affinity is frequently described as electron affinity, which states that when an electron is added to a neutrally charge atoms, creating a negative ion, there is a change in energy.

An example of affinity in my line of work can be found in the waters overlying the sediments in a lake. When the bottom waters are oxygenated iron in the sediments has a strong affinity for phosphorus, essentially locking it in the mud and making it unavailable for algae to use of a nutrient. However, when the bottom waters of a lake are depleted of dissolved oxygen this strong affinity for phosphorus is eliminated and the phosphorus – iron bond is broken, releasing the phosphorus into the overlaying waters. In turn, this dissolved phosphorus is readily available for algae to use. The availability of phosphorus from the sediments is called internal loading and can be the cause of summer algae blooms in many lakes or ponds.

Getting back to the sample of meteorite, it had a strong affinity for silicon. This affinity resulted in an exothermic reaction and the disappearance of both the silicon (glass beaker) and the sample is particularly perplexing since silicon has melting and boiling points of 1,414 °C and 3,265 °C, respectively. Thus, if the meteorite sample reacted with the glass beaker in an exothermic reaction leaving a charred spot on a wooden shelf, it would have generated temperatures of up to 3,265 °C (5,909 °F). Why didn’t the wooden shelf catch fire? Also, why would it have such a strong affinity for silicon but not for other substances? It is possible that the meteorite was reacting to Earth’s atmosphere, which would explain why it was consistently warm and slowly shrinking. In this case, the meteorite had an “affinity” for Earth’s atmosphere or at least a component of Earth’s atmosphere.

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Willamette Meteorite (www.marmet-meteorites.com)

Next time we will talk about the physics and chemistry of the “Colour” itself. Thank you – Fred.