Tag Archives: Miskatonic University

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 Mathematics of the Witch House, Part 1

Opening shot of Stuart Gordon’s movie The Dreams in the Witch House

Mathematics is an important component of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch House.  The main character, Walter Gilman, is a student of non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics at Miskatonic University.   Gilman moves into the upper floor room of a house  with odd / strange angles forming the ceilings and walls.  At one time a known witch, Keziah Mason lived in the house along with her familiar Brown Jenkin (more on him in a later article).  Apparently, Keziah’s magic was essentially the use of complex mathematics and physics to travel through time and space.  Gilman was learning to apply his mathematics to accomplish a similar goal.

Walter Gilman and the witch Keziah Mason from Stuart Gordon’s movie The Dreams in the Witch House

The Dreams in the Witch House is HPL’s interpretation or modernization of the myth of witches, giving a scientific explanation to their magical abilities (Joshi and Schultz, 2001; An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia).  However, in an article titled H.P. Lovecraft and Pseudomathematics in the book Discovering H.P. Lovecraft (edited by Darrell Schweitzer), Robert Weinberg is a little harsh on Lovecraft’s take on the use of mathematics and physics.

While Weinberg states that there was a lot of misinformation being generated through the “translation” of scientific and mathematical accomplishments in early 20th century, he criticizes Lovecraft’s use of such concepts and ideas.  For example, Weinberg states that “non-Euclidean calculus” does not exist and the phase itself is meaningless.  In addition, “quantum physics” is just a fancy way of saying quantum mechanics.  However, more critical than the terms HPL comes up with is Weinberg’s concluding comment in the article:

“Unfortunately, while his grasp of science and mathematics might have been greater than the layman, it was not strong enough to present a convincing picture to the careful reader.  Futher, Lovecraft made the cardinal mistake of speculation of the impossible.  While to the non-scientist, this may not sound like much of a sin, it is the cardinal mistake of the uninformed.” – Weinberg.

“Mistake of speculation of the impossible?” – is that a problem here?  I am a scientist and I can appreciate that Lovecraft is crafting fiction, using these phases and concepts to convey a story, not to give a lecture on mathematics.  I know that the Earth is not hollow but I can enjoy a story about adventures in a hollow Earth (as long as it’s an interesting story).  I can’t tell you how many times I see basic concepts of biology and evolution violated in movies and books but I don’t dismiss the art itself.  Sure some of the ideas seem to be so ridiculous (as a biologist) that I may laugh at it, even though that may not have been the intention of the artist.  While some movies or stories may blatantly show a lack of understanding of basic concepts of biology, I can still enjoy the fiction, particularly weird fiction.

I think Mr. Weinberg was being much to harsh in this article.  I can understand contrasting HPL’s pseudomathematics to existing mathematics but to chastise HPL over his partial understanding of the subject in his stories is not needed.

The Dreams in the Witch House by Enrique Cedillo

Ironically, I found an article on HPL and mathematics, written by a professor of mathematics.  The article is called H.P. Lovecraft: A Horror in Higher Dimensions (written by Thomas Hull of Merrimack College, North Andover, MA).  The article appeared in Math Horizons, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Feb. 2006), pp. 10-12, published by the Mathematical Association of America (www.maa.org).  In the article, it is clearly understood that HPL was not a mathematician or scientist, however, Hull did state – “Lovecraft’s use of strange geometry is effective for both the mathematical literate and the layman.”

While I do not know Mr. Weinberg’s background and experience with science and math, he is a well known and respected writer and editor of many volumes of weird fiction.  I just find it amusing that the writer was very critical of HPL’s pseudomathematics, but the mathematician found it effective.  Whether the phrases or concepts HPL used were real or imaginary, they sparked my imagination when I was a boy and that’s what is great about Lovecraft’s work – it make you curious to know more about both the real and the unreal.

Next time we will be talking about the concept of hyperspace and how Keziah and Walter used mathematics to travel through time and space – Thank you, Fred.

The witch Keziah Mason from Stuart Gordon’s movie The Dreams in the Witch House