Tag Archives: William Herschel

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)

Is There Room for Uranus in a Lovecraftian Solar System?

A view of the planet Uranus from the Hubble Telescope.  The white dot is its moon Ariel; the black dot is the moon’s shadow on the planet (solarsystem.nasa.gov).

Uranus was discovered by an amateur astronomer – William Herschel – on 13 March 1781.  It was the first planet ever identified in recorded human history.  In fact, Herschel first thought Uranus was a comet.  In 1781 the idea that there was another planet beyond Saturn was unthinkable.

Sir William Herschel, discoverer of the planet Uranus (wikipedia.org).

In HPL’s time not much was known about Uranus.  He mentions the planet a few times in his astronomical articles.  For example in his Celestial Objects for All: An Easy Guide to Astronomical Observation with Opera, and Field Glasses (first published in 1907), HPL had one sentence for the planets Uranus and Neptune:  “Both of these planets are visible as faint stars in opera glasses, yet their study seldom repays the observer” (from Collected Essays Volume 3: Science H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi, 2005).  Later, HPL said Uranus was more than likely “a hot and molten semi-sun” (Asheville [N.C.] Gazette-News; 1915).

In HPL’s time Uranus was thought to have four moons.  Moving outward these moons are Ariel, Umbriel, Titania and Oberon.  Currently Uranus is thought to have 27 moons.  Additionally, Uranus is called an ice-giant, since most of its mass is composed of a hot dense fluid of “icy” materials of water, methane, and ammonia with a small rocky core.  The atmosphere of Uranus is composed primarily of hydrogen, helium and a small amount of methane (solarsyste.nasa.gov).

Uranus is about 1.8 billion miles, or 19.19 A.U. away from the sun.  A day on Uranus is about 17 hours, while a “year” for Uranus is 84 Earth years.  Similar to Jupiter, Uranus has a set of faint rings but in the case of Uranus the inner rings are narrow and dark while the outer rings are brightly colored.  What is unique to Uranus is that it rotates on its side and thus spins horizontally and not vertically like the rest of the plants (solarsystem.nasa.gov).

IDL TIFF file

A series of enhanced (infrared composites) views of Uranus from the Keck Telescope taken on 11 July 2004 (solarsystem.nasa.gov).

So where was the planet Uranus mentioned in HPL’s fiction?  Well, I could not find any reference to this planet in any of HPL’s stories.  There is a brief mention of the Greek God Uranus (God of the sky) in Poetry and the Gods, a story HPL co-wrote with Anna Helen Crofts but there is no mention of the planet Uranus.

Unfortunately, the same can be said for Clark Ashton Smith.  I found no reference of the planet Uranus in any of Smith’s stories.  A lot more is known about Uranus today than what was known in the days of HPL and Smith.  However, that can be said about all of the planets.  Why was Uranus ignored in the fiction of HPL and Smith?  We may never know.  Maybe there is no room for Uranus in a Lovecraftian solar system.  Next time we visit Neptune.  Thank you – Fred.