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).
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.
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.
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.
Gravity 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, 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).
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.
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.