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H.P. Lovecraft’s Interest in Astronomy

I wonder if you care for the science of Astronomy? This has been a source of fascination to me for twelve years—just half my life.

H.P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, 8 December 1914

...astronomy has always been my favourite science, followed assiduously since I was twelve years old.

H.P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 25 March 1923
| Astrology | Betelgeuse | Elijah Burritt’s Geography of the Heavens |
| Comets | Willem de Sitter | Eclipses |
| Albert Einstein and Relativity | Hayden Planetarium |
| Ladd Observatory | Percival Lowell | Lunar Rainbow |
| Michelson-Morley Experiment | Maria Mitchell Observatory |
| The Moon | Palomar Observatory | Pluto |
| The Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy | Harlow Shapley’s Starlight |
| “The Skyscrapers” | Venus | Charles Young’s Lessons in Astronomy |
Astrology (Wikipedia)

“Recently a quack named Hartmann, a devotee of the pseudo-science of Astrology, commenced to disseminate the usual pernicious fallacies of that occult art through the columns of The News, so that in the interest of true Astronomy I was forced into a campaign of invective and satire. I began seriously, with Science versus Charlatanry, which I followed up with The Falsity of Astrology, but eventually the stupid persistence of the modern Nostradamus forced me to adopt ridicule as my weapon. I thereupon went back to my beloved age of Queen Anne for a precedent, and decided to emulate Dean Swift’s famous attacks on the astrologer Partridge, conducted under the nom de plume of Isaac Bickerstaffe (or Bickerstaff—I have seen it spelled both ways). Accordingly I published a satirical article wherein I gave with an air of solemn gravity the most nonsensical collection of wild prophecies that my brain could conceive; the whole entitled Astrology and the Future, and signed ‘Isaac Bickerstaffe, Jr.’ I there ‘predicted’ the end of the world by an explosion of internal gases in the year 4954. Hartmann scarce knew whether or not to take me seriously, and kept up his mountebank performances, so I prepared another Bickerstaffe paper whose ridicule should become more open toward the end. In this final effort, Delavan’s Comet and Astrology, I explained how the human race shall be preserved after the destruction of the earth, by transportation to the planet Venus! Even the obtuse intellect of the charlatan must have discovered the sarcastic nature of this ponderous prophecy, for he has now quietly ceased to inflict his false notions on a gullible public.” (to Maurice W. Moe, 8 December 1914)

“As for astrology—since I have always been a devotee of the real science of astronomy, which takes all the ground from under the unreal and merely apparent celestial arrangements on which astrological predictions are based, I have had too great a contempt for the art to take much interest in it—except when refuting its puerile claims. Back in 1914 I conducted a heavy newspaper campaign against a local defender of astrology, and in 1926 I read quite a few astrological books (since largely forgotten) in order to ghost-write a thorough and systematic exposé of the fake science for no less notable a client than the late Houdini. That comprises the sum of my astrological knowledge—the casting of horoscopes never having been included among my ambitions. If I ever employ any astrological lore in stories, I shall most gratefully call on you for realistic detail.” (to E. Hoffmann Price, 15 February 1933)

Betelgeuse (Wikipedia)

“Good luck with Hastur—but don’t use any word sounding like ‘Betelgeuse’ to represent a primal name of that distant sun (or to represent the name used by the denizens of any of its hypothetical planets) since this name is an Arabic product of the Middle Ages, and signifies ‘the armpit (or shoulder) of the giant (or central one)’—Ibn at Jauzah—Orion having been known as Al Jauzah to the astronomers of the Saracenic Caliphate—who did so much to advance the science.” (to August Derleth, 30 January 1933)

Elijah Burritt’s Geography of the Heavens

“My maternal grandmother, who died when I was six, was a devoted lover of astronomy, having made that a specialty at Lapham Seminary, where she was educated; and though she never personally showed me the beauties of the skies, it is to her excellent but somewhat obsolete collection of astronomical books that I owe my affection for celestial science. Her copy of Burritt’s Geography of the Heavens is today the most prized volume in my library.” (to Maurice W. Moe, 1 January 1915)

Comets (Wikipedia)

   “Last night I had an interesting view of Peltier’s comet through the 12" telescope of Ladd Observatory (of Brown U) a mile north of here. I used to haunt this observatory 30 years ago—the director and his two assistants (all dead now—save one asst. now at Wesleyan U. in Middletown, Conn.) being infinitely tolerant of a pompous juvenile ass with grandiose astronomical ambitions! The present object showed a small disc with hazy, fan-like tail. I could have seen it through my own small telescope were the northern sky less cut off from the neighbourhood of 66. The first comet I ever observed was Borelli’s—in Aug. 1903. I saw Halley’s in 1910—but missed the bright one earlier in that year by being flat in bed with a hellish case of measles!” (to Robert H. Barlow, 23 July 1936)

Willem de Sitter (History of Mathematics Archive, University of St. Andrews)

“...I heard Prof. de Sitter lecture here Nov. 9 on The Size of the Universe. One of the most spectacular of recent astronomical developments is the growing conviction that the visible cosmos is in a state of constant expansion—as if it were scattering its contents into empty space. Probably all cosmic units have a similar history—forming through the accidental aggregation of wandering atomic clusters, subsequently going through a series of typical readjustments based on the electrical properties of matter, & ending in a final disintegration & dispersal. De Sitter is not the first proponent of this view of the cosmos—which perhaps originates with Dr. V.M. Silpher’s spectroscopic work at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, (which proved that all spiral nebulae—external galaxies—are retreating rapidly into outer space) but he is the first to make it the subject of a mathematical fact in the matter of Einstein. It will also be interesting to see how well de Sitter’s theory of the origin of the solar system (through actually colliding stars instead of merely closely passing stars) will stand comparison with the views which have been dominant since 1905 or 1906. De Sitter is a pleasant-looking little old man with bald head, fringe of snowy hair, & snowy full beard. He speaks excellent English, but has not a very great vocal carrying-power, so that those in the rear of his audiences are distinctly out of luck. He is extremely clever in bringing the outlines of an abstruse subject within the layman’s grasp, & shews great acumen in choosing illustrative lantern-slides.” (to Miss Elizabeth Toldridge, 3 December 1931)

Eclipses (Wikipedia)

“I hope to get north of Boston—in the totality zone—during the eclipse of August 31, but am not sure whether I shall bother to go to Maine for the zone of maximum duration. It really matters relatively little whether an amateur sees the totality for half a minute, or for a minute & a half, so long as he does see it. Even a momentary flash gives the full benefit of the corona. In 1925 (when I was in New York) some of us tramped up into the cold of northern Yonkers to see the January eclipse, but Long (judging from his description) seems to have seen about as much from the roof of his apartment house in 100th St.” (to Miss Elizabeth Toldridge, 12 August 1932)

“Well—the card from me an’ Culinarius no doubt appris’d you of our eclipse success. Grandpa is in the two-corona class now—whereas you may get a rainy day in Peru in ’37! In Prov. I am told it was rainy. Boston got a good view of its 99% obscuration—but as near as Medford it was half-ruin’d by clouds. I’m hoping that Smithy had as good luck at Haverhill (two sec. totality) as we did at Newburyport.
   “As for harrowing details—we reached Bossy Gillis’s burg long before the eclipse started, and chose an hilltop meadow with a wide view—near the northern end of High Street—as our observatory. The sky was mottled, and naturally we were damn anxious—but the sun came out every little while and gave us long glimpses of the waxing spectacle. The aspect of the landskip did not change in tone until the solar crescent was rather small, and then a kind of sunset vividness became apparent. When the crescent waned to extreme thinness, the scene grew strange and spectral—an almost deathlike quality inhering in the sickly yellowish light. Just about that time the sun went under a cloud, and our expedition commenced cursing in 33-1/3 different languages including Ido. At last, though, the thin thread of the pre-totality glitter emerged into a large patch of absolutely clear sky. The outspread valleys faded into unnatural night—Jupiter came out in the deep-violet heavens—ghoulish shadow-bands raced along the winding white clouds—the last beaded strip of glitter vanished—and the pale corona flicker’d into aureolar radiance around the black disc of the obscuring moon. We were seeing the real show! Though Newburyport was by no means close to the line of maximum duration, the totality lasting for a surprisingly lone time—long enough for the impression to sink ineffaceably in. It would have been foolish if we had gone up to the crowded central line in Maine or New Hampshire. The earth was darken’d much more pronouncedly than in our marrow-congealing ordeal of ’25, (the coldness of this damn train takes my memory back to that harrowing occasion!) tho’ the corona was not so bright. There was a suggestion of a streamer extending above and to the left of the disc, with a shorter corresponding streamer below and to the right. We absorb’d the whole exhibition with open eyes and gaping mouths—I chalking down II whilst Khul-i-N’hari had to be content with I. Too bad about youse poor one-eclipse guys! Finally the beaded crescent reëmerged, the valleys glow’d again in faint, eerie light, and the various partial phases were repeated in reverse order. The marvel was over, and accustom’d things resum’d their wonted sway.” (to James F. Morton, 3 September 1932)

Albert Einstein and Relativity (Albert Einstein Online)

“As for Einstein—there can be no doubt but that his fame is solidly founded. Whatever future mathematicians & physicists may discover regarding the widest working out of his principles, it seems certain that the general facts of relativity & curved space are unshakable realities, without considering which it will be impossible to form any sort of true conception of the cosmos.” (to Miss Elizabeth Toldridge, 20 December 1930)

Hayden Planetarium (American Museum of Natural History)

“On two occasions—once with Sonny and once with Sonny and Wandrei—I visited the new Hayden Planetarium of the Am. Museum, and found it a highly impressive device. It consists of a round domed building of two stories. On the lower floor is a circular hall whose ceiling is a gigantick orrery—showing the planets revolving round the sun at their proper relative speeds. Above it is another circular hall whose roof is the great dome, and whose edge is made to represent the horizon of N.Y. as seen from Central Park. In the centre of this upper hall is a curious projector which casts on the concave dome a perfect image of the sky—capable of duplicating the natural apparent motions of the celestial vault, and of depicting the heavens as seen at any hour, in any season, from any latitude, and at any period of history. Other parts of the projector can cast suitably moveable images of the sun, moon, and planets and diagrammatick arrows and circles for explanatory purposes. The effect is infinitely lifelike—as if one were outdoors beneath the sky.” (to Alfred Galpin, 17 January 1936)

Ladd Observatory (Brown University Observatories)

“In the summer of 1903 my mother presented me with a 2-1/2" astronomical telescope, and thenceforward my gaze was ever upward at night. The late Prof. Upton of Brown, a friend of the family, gave me the freedom of the college observatory, (Ladd Observatory) & I came & went there at will on my bicycle. Ladd Observatory tops a considerable eminence about a mile from the house. I used to walk up Doyle Avenue hill with my wheel, but when returning would have a glorious coast down it. So constant were my observations, that my neck became much affected by the strain of peering at a difficult angle. It gave me much pain, & resulted in a permanent curvature perceptible today to a close observer.” (to Rheinhart Kleiner, 16 November 1916)

“From 1906 to 1918 I contributed monthly articles on astronomical phenomena to one of the lesser Providence dailies. One thing that helped me greatly was the free access which I had to the Ladd Observatory of Brown University—an unusual privilege for a kid, but made possible because Prof. Upton—head of the college astronomical department and director of the observatory—was a friend of the family. I suppose I pestered the people at the observatory half to death, but they were very kind about it. I had a chance to see all the standard modern equipment of an observatory (including a 12" telescope) in action, and read endlessly in the observatory library. The professors and their humbler assistant—an affable little cockney from England name John Edwards—often helped me pick up equipment, and Edwards made me some magnificent photographic lantern-slides (from illustrations in books) which I used in giving illustrated astronomical lectures before clubs.” (to Duane Rimel, 29 March 1934)

Percival Lowell (Lowell Observatory)

   “As to celebrities—one experience of mine had to do with an astronomical instead of a poetical giant; namely, Percival Lowell, the brother of Pres. Lowell of Harvard, and the widely known observer of Mars—whose observatory is in Flagstaff, Arizona. He lectured in this city in 1907, when I was writing for the Tribune, and Prof. Upton of Brown introduced me to him before the lecture in Sayles’ Hall. Now here is the amusing part—I never had, have not, and never will have the slightest belief in Lowell’s speculations; and when I met him I had just been attacking his theories in my astronomical articles with my characteristically merciless language. With the egotism of my 17 years, I feared that Lowell had read what I had written! I tried to be as noncommittal as possible in speaking, and fortunately discovered that the eminent observer was more disposed to ask me about my telescope, studies, etc., than to discuss Mars. Prof. Upton soon led him away to the platform, and I congratulated myself that a disaster had been averted!” (to Rheinhart Kleiner, 19 February 1916)

Lunar Rainbow (Science Frontiers)

   “By the way—on August 14th at eight p.m. I beheld a phenomenon which, though I had always known of it from books, I had never seen before in the course of a long lifetime. No one else present had ever seen it before either—although the company included persons up to the age of sixty-six. I refer to a lunar rainbow—a clear, complete bow in the northwestern sky opposite the rising full moon. Bob claimed he could detect colours in it—especially red on the outer edge—though to me it appear’d of an uniform grayness—faint tho’ distinct. Having beheld two total solar eclipses and now a lunar rainbow, I feel myself quite a connoisseur of odd phenomena!” (to James F. Morton, 19 August 1935)

Michelson-Morley Experiment (Wikipedia)

   “Recent lectures of interest have been on Plato’s Republick, modern art, Gilbert Stuart, Rhode-Island silversmiths, archaick Greek art, Philosophy and Poetry, early classical sculpture, Mayan ruins, and the Michelson-Morley experiment. The last-named, deliver’d at the college Monday night, was by Prof. Dayton C. Miller, former colleague of Morley and present continuer of the experiment. He furnish’d startlingly convincing proof that the real results of the experiment do NOT shew that total absence of effect of the observer’s motion on the speed of light which forms the underlying assumption of the Einstein theory. Instead, there is merely a lack of the full difference which the observer’s motion ought (according to the old theory of time and space) to make. Prof. Miller very pertinently asks whether Einstein—and Eddington and Jeans and all the rest—ought to assume (and base a whole theory of cosmick entity on that assumption) that the Michelson-Morley experiment always gives zero (reckoning any difference from that as error), when in truth it always gives a fairly constant difference from zero; in the direction that the earth’s motion (in orbit, and in cosmick space with the sun) wou’d indicate (according to the old pre-Einstein concept), tho’ not of the AMOUNT demanded by that motion (in the absence of unknown complicating factors). Miller himself offers no dogmatic solution, but suggests that a drift in the luminiferous aether (assuming, contrary to Einstein, that such exists) in the direction of the earth’s motion would account—on the basis of the old pre-Einstein universe of non-relativity—for the fact that the observer’s change of place in space gives some of the effect demanded by the old concept, but not all of the required amount. If Miller is right, the whole fabrick of relativity collapses, and we have once more the absolute dimensions and real time which we had before 1905. Just how his experiments—of incredible care, elaborateness, frequency, and repetition under every conceivable change of conditions—are regarded by the bulk of recent physicists and mathematicians, I do not know—but his explanation of them seemed to indicate a more serious challenge to Einstein than any previously offer’d by other non-relativists. I shall be eager to learn what the disciples of relativity have to say of him and his work. Prof. Miller’s lecture was illustrated, and was mark’d by a singular and felicitous clearness of expression. Of the laymen who attended it, most departed with a better idea of the famous experiment than they ever had before.” (to James F. Morton, 9 May 1936)

Maria Mitchell Observatory (The Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association)

“One of the principal features today is the Maria Mitchell Observatory in Vestal St. (formerly Goal Lane), which adjoins the birthplace of the celebrated female astronomer (professor at Vassar) whose name it bears. The observatory is modern—a memorial to Prof. Mitchell. I had a good chance to observe Saturn through its excellent 5" telescope.” (to J. Vernon Shea, 10 February 1935)

The Moon (Wikipedia)

“And to tell the truth, I think the moon interested me more than anything else—the very nearest object. I used to sit night after night absorbing the minutest details of the lunar surface, till today I can tell you of every peak and crater as though they were the topographical features of my own neighbourhood. I was highly angry at Nature for withholding from my gaze the other side of our satellite!” (to Alfred Galpin, 21 August 1918)

Palomar Observatory (California Institute of Technology)

“...I still take an active interest in all such astronomical developments as laymen can understand, & am very eager to see the completion of the 200-inch reflector. Nothing even approaching that size in my day. Planets beyond Pluto may conceivably be discovered.” (to Miss Elizabeth Toldridge, 20 December 1930)

Pluto (Wikipedia)

“Incidentally—you have no doubt read reports of the discovery of the new trans-Neptunian planet . . . . a thing which excites me more than any other happening of recent times. Its existence is no surprise, for observers have long known that one or more such worlds probably exist beyond Neptune; yet its actual finding carries hardly less glamour on that account. Keats (thinking no doubt of Herschel’s discover of Uranus in 1781, or perhaps of the finding of the earlier asteroids) caught the magic of planetary discovery in two lines of his Chapman’s Homer sonnet, & that magic is surely as keen today as then. Asteroidal discovery does not mean much—but a major planet—a vast unknown world—is quite another matter. I have always wished I could live to see such a thing come to light—& here it is! The first real planet to be discovered since 1846, & only the third in the history of the human race! One wonders what it is like, & what dim-litten fungi may sprout coldly on its frozen surface! I think I shall suggest its being named Yuggoth! Reports make it smaller than Uranus & Neptune, but larger than the earth. I shall await its ephemerides & elements with interest. Probably it will receive a symbol & be treated of in the Nautical Almanack—I wonder whether it will get into the popular almanacks as well? Probably the future 200-inch reflector to be set up in California will tell more about it—& perhaps even help in locating still more distant planets. There is still quite a bit of interest in the limited solar system despite the diversion of astronomers’ chief notice to the larger problems of the stellar universe. Another thing that pleases me is that the newcomer came to light at the Lowell Observatory, & from Lowell’s own calculations. Poor chap! His better known observations & speculations never fared well in the scientific world; but now, thirteen years after his death, it is possible that his calculations may win him a major place among astronomers.” (to Miss Elizabeth Toldridge, 1 April 1930)

The Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy

“In January, 1903, astronomy began to engross me completely. I procured a small telescope, and surveyed the heavens constantly. Not one clear night passed without long observation on my part, and the practical, first-hand knowledge thus acquired has ever since been of the highest utility to me in my astronomical writing. In August 1903 (though I knew nothing of the press associations) I commenced to publish an amateur paper called The R.I. Journal of Astronomy, writing it by hand, and duplicating it on a hectograph. This I continued for four years, first as a weekly, later as a monthly.” (to Maurice W. Moe, 1 January 1915)

Harlow Shapley’s Starlight (Obituary from Nature magazine)

“To my mind an elementary knowledge of the nature & workings of the universe is a really essential part of any artist’s or thinker’s background. It is the greatest clarifier of perspective I know of, & is a whole imaginative education in itself because of the stupendous magnitudes & distances it brings up for attention. But all the distances described in the two books I lent you are as nothing compared with the nearly unthinkable chasms envisaged by modern astronomy. To get a hint of these things one must read some very recent treatise—the smallest & clearest of which, I think, is Starlight, by Prof. Harlow Shapley.” (to Miss Elizabeth Toldridge, 20 December 1929)

“The Skyscrapers” (Skyscrapers, Inc.)

   “October 9th I attended a meeting of the local organisation of amateur astronomers—‘The Skyscrapers’, which functions more or less under the auspices of Brown University—and was astonished at its degree of development. Some of the members are really serious scientific observers, and the society has recently purchased a well-known private observatory (that of the late F.E. Seagrave—whom Charles A.A. Parker once knew—with an 8" refracting telescope) in the western part of the state. It has separate meteor, variable star, planet, etc. sections, which hold meetings of their own and report as units, and enjoys the use of the college observatory. At the recent meeting there was an address on early Rhode-Island astronomy, and the reflecting telescope of Joseph Brown—used to observe the transit of Venus here on June 3, 1769 and owned by the college since 1780—was exhibited.” (to James F. Morton, March 1937)

Venus (Wikipedia)

“My observations (for I purchased a telescope early in 1903) were confined mostly to the moon and the planet Venus. You will ask, why the latter, since its markings are doubtful even in the largest instruments? I answer—this very MYSTERY was what attracted me. In boyish egotism I fancied I might light upon something with my poor little 2-1/4-inch telescope which had eluded the users of the 40-inch Yerkes telescope!!” (to Alfred Galpin, 21 August 1918)

Charles Young’s Lessons in Astronomy (University of Las Vegas Libraries)

“Incidentally—it was this very day of 1903—Feb’y 12th—(which fell, however, on Thursday) that I bought the very first new book on astronomy that I ever owned. It was Young’s Lessons in Astronomy, & I got it at the R.I. News Co., for $1.25. Previously I had had only Grandma’s copy of Burritt’s Geography of the Heavens. As I returned in the evening darkness on the rear platform of an Elmgrove Ave. car—415, I think it was; one of the graceful J.M. Jones cars—I looked over the pictures & chapter headings with perhaps the most delightful sense of breathless anticipation I have ever known. Most literally, a strong cosmos of new worlds lay before me!” (to an unknown correspondent, 12 February 1926)

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