H.P. Lovecraft and the phantom planet

Science and science fiction go hand in hand, so to speak… but science and horror fiction?  There are, in fact, more connections than one might think.  A lot of modern science can be quite scary at first glance, and knowledgeable authors have used it to push horror fiction in new and important directions. The foremost example of this is, of course, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), which is often regarded as the birth of modern science fiction as well as a milestone in horror fiction.  Shelley’s work was inspired by the discovery of galvanism, the electrical origins of biological function. Early researchers would shock corpses to make them jump, and many people genuinely believed that electricity could raise the dead.

a_galvanised_corpse

There is perhaps no other author who was more invested in the connection between horror and science than H.P. Lovecraft.  As I have blogged in the past, Lovecraft was an amateur astronomer and wrote a column on astronomy for his local paper, even getting into print wars with astrologers!  He also attended popular science lectures on Einstein’s relativity theory, and that relativity theory would play a major role in Lovecraft’s cosmic horror.  In The Call of Cthulhu, for example, Lovecraft writes of the sunken city of R’lyeh, where “He had said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.”

Recently, I came across another influence of Lovecraft’s fiction.  During his astronomy years, before he turned to fiction writing, he was intrigued by the possibility of undiscovered planets in our Solar System; such phantom planets would later feature  prominently in his writing. As an astronomy author, Lovecraft even wrote an article about a planet that does not exist!

The planet in question is the mythical Vulcan.  No, not the one from Star Trek — the one that astronomers thought existed somewhere in orbit between the Sun and Mercury.  The curious story of Vulcan was beautiful described in Tom Levenson’s 2015 book The Hunt for Vulcan, which I blogged about not too long ago.  The reasoning behind Vulcan is quite fascinating, and Levenson’s book is well-worth reading; the short version may be summarized as follows.

By the mid-1800s, Newton’s 1687 theory of gravity had proven itself to be magnificently and almost incomprehensibly accurate.  One of its great successes was the prediction of an additional as yet unobserved planet, which was confirmed in 1846 with the discovery of Neptune.

Neptune was predicted because the observed motion of its neighbor Uranus deviated from Newton’s predictions; when the motion of the planet Mercury was found to similarly disagree with Newton, it was natural for scientists to assume that another massive object must account for its motion.  Calculations indicated that such a planet, if it existed, necessarily orbited closer to the sun than Mercury.

Spotting objects moving close to the sun is tricky, however, and can only be done during solar eclipses.  A number of expeditions to eclipse observing sites were mounted specifically to hunt for Vulcan.  Though a number of observers claimed to have seen the mysterious Vulcan, none of the observations held up to scrutiny, and by the late 1800s most astronomers had serious doubts about the Vulcan hypothesis.

This brings us to Lovecraft’s discussion of Vulcan!  In 1906, Lovecraft wrote an article for the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner, titled “Are There Undiscovered Planets?”  I reproduce selected sections from this article below*.

The ancients knew of no planets beyond Saturn, and when Uranus was discovered in 1781, everyone supposed that the boundary of the system was reached at last, yet in 1846 Neptune was added to this list.  Now we must consider carefully whether the are any more of t hese great worlds awaiting discovery, and if so, where to find them.  There are just two places in the solar system where undiscovered planets have been thought to exist, i.e. between Mercury and the sun, and beyond Neptune; for a planet in any other place would long ago have been seen.

Lovecraft first discusses the history and possibility of Vulcan.

Many people have imagined the existence of an intra-Mercurial orb, and several times the discovery of one has been announced, but i n every case the assertion has been disproved. The means by which most of of the pseudo-discoveries were made have been fictitious transits over the sun, and stars seen during the eclipses.  Among the former, the episode of “Vulcan” will always be remembered.

In 1848 the French astronomer Leverrier, who discovered Neptune, thought that Mercury did not move as it should, and that the error was due to an unknown planet .  He exhorted all astronomers to search carefully for this.  Many years later, a poor physician named Lescarbault announced the discovery of the planet in transit, and for a short time he was greatly honoured, the new orb receiving the name of “Vulcan,” but after a time it was demonstrated that no such body could exist.

Another remarkable “discovery” was that made by Profs. Watson and Swift at Ann Arbor, Mich., during the eclipse of 1878, when both observers pointed out two objects, one as the hypothetical Vulcan, the other as a new intra-Mercurial.  The statement, however, as well as all others like it, was quickly proved to be unfounded, as the two “planets” turned out to be well-known stars.

This statement seems very much like Lovecraft, practically sneering at the honest mistakes of the early researchers!  Dismissing the existence of Vulcan, Lovecraft considered the question of undiscovered planets in the outer reaches of the solar system.

We must now turn to the other explorable region, i.e. that beyond Neptune. It has been observed that the order of the planets from the sun was in a regular progression, which, if so, would render planetary discovery quite easy, but this rule, which is purely accidental, fails in the case of the outer planets, so other means must be relied on. It must be understood that the enormous gravities of the large planets draw to them certain comets, making their aphelia, or points farthest from the sun, very near to their orbits. Jupiter and others have captured a great number in this way.  Now it has been observed that a great many  comets have their aphelia at a space of about 9,300,000,000 miles from the sun, so Prof. Forbes of the Royal Society of Edinburgh imagines a planet to exist at that distance, revolving about once in a thousand years.  Mr. Percival Lowell of Arizona conjectures a large body to exist about 6,550,000,000 miles out, from the same reason.  But it would be a very difficult task to find the elements of so distant a body, and even if some mathematician should accomplish the task of computing an orbit, it is doubtful if its theoretical place would be anywhere in the vicinity of its actual location, so it seems to the writer that the only possible way of finding such a planet is to examine photographs of every part of the sky, as is done in the discovery of asteroids.

It is not likely that the limits of our solar system are yet found, and sooner or later Mercury and Neptune must lose the distinction that they now bear.

Lovecraft’s laymen’s view of astronomy would turn out to be quite prophetic.  The aforementioned Percival Lowell did an extensive search for a ninth planet, “Planet X,” and it was later found that his observations had in fact captured two images of what would later be named Pluto! The dwarf planet was discovered in 1929 at Lowell’s observatory by Clyde Tombaugh, and it was found as Lovecraft thought: through careful examination of photographs.

pluto_discovery_plates

The discovery of Pluto would inspire Lovecraft’s writing.  In late 1930, Lovecraft finished his eerie story “The Whisperer in Darkness,” in which an extraterrestrial race of fungoid creatures enact evil plans on Earth.  These creatures herald from a distant outer planet known as Yuggoth.  As Lovecraft writes in his story,

When I left Brattleboro I resolved never to go back to Vermont, and I feel quite certain I shall keep my resolution. Those wild hills are surely the outpost of a frightful cosmic race—as I doubt all the less since reading that a new ninth planet has been glimpsed beyond Neptune, just as those influences had said it would be glimpsed. Astronomers, with a hideous appropriateness they little suspect, have named this thing “Pluto”. I feel, beyond question, that it is nothing less than nighted Yuggoth—and I shiver when I try to figure out the real reason why its monstrous denizens wish it to be known in this way at this especial time. I vainly try to assure myself that these daemoniac creatures are not gradually leading up to some new policy hurtful to the earth and its normal inhabitants.

Last year, NASA’s New Horizons space probe became the first to make a close approach to Pluto, resulting in the first high-resolution images of the dwarf planet. No evil fungi creatures were discovered, but scientists were nevertheless delighted by the rich geography and wealthy of information that the planet provided.

nh-pluto-in-true-color_2x_jpeg-edit-frame

As a nod to Lovecraft, a massive feature of the dwarf planet’s surface has been dubbed the “Cthulhu Regio.”

But what of the mystery of Vulcan, and the unexplained motion of Mercury that led to its hypothesis? Here also there is a connection to Lovecraft.  In 1915, Albert Einstein introduced his relativistic theory of gravity, known as the general theory of relativity, and showed that this theory precisely predicts the anomalous behavior of Mercury as observed. It was not a new planet that was needed to explain Mercury’s motion, but a new theory of gravity.  Einstein’s theory is now of fundamental importance to our understanding of the universe as a whole, the study of cosmology.  As already mentioned, Lovecraft would take Einstein’s theory — which describes gravity as a curvature of space and time — and worked it into his descriptions of the nightmarish city of R’lyeh.

It is worth noting that the search for planets in our solar system is not yet over.  In recent years, researchers have proposed that a ninth planet (not counting Pluto, which is considered a “dwarf planet”) exists out in the darkness beyond Pluto, dubbed “Planet Nine.”  This planet has been proposed, yet again, on the basis of unusual motion of observed orbits; it is predicted to be 10 times more massive than Earth, with a diameter 2-4 times that of Earth.

Perhaps Lovecraft’s distant Yuggoth has not yet been seen…

***************************

¹ Excerpts from Lovecraft’s article taken from H.P. Lovecraft, Collected Essays, Volume 3: Science, S.T. Joshi, ed. (Hippocampus Press, 2005).

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3 Responses to H.P. Lovecraft and the phantom planet

  1. ntech42 says:

    “Planet nine” yeah that won’t start a few arguments. xD

  2. Colin Rosenthal (@colinrosenthal) says:

    William Hope Hodgson’s “The Night Land” is another classic that lives somewhere on the boundary between Science Fiction, proto-Fantasy, and Lovecraftian Horror.

  3. kaleberg says:

    R’lyeh? Isn’t that R-sub-i-j, the Ricci tensor?

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