The young Lovecraft goes nuclear…
Radio-activity interested me enough to cause me to obtain a spinthariscope — containing, of course, a minute quantity of radioactive matter.” (Letter to Galpin, 29th August 1918, recalling his boyhood)
It may have been tiny but it was visible evidence of a discovery that lifted a great weight of despair, from the minds those who had grown up during the Victorian era. I refer to the once prevalent scientific idea of the ‘inevitable’ heat-death of the sun (by some calculations, as soon as in 3,000 years or so). The following quote from 1906 shows that Lovecraft had used the discovery of radium (radioactivity) to shrug off this erroneous model of how the sun worked…
“To this, it must be said that the great body’s [the sun’s] size precludes its cooling at any time within millions of years, and the discovery of an element called “Radium” in its constitution lengthens the epoch to billions, so it may be safely believed that for many generations the sun will continue to exist as a great donor of light and heat.” (The sixteen year old Lovecraft, writing in 1906)
One can see the older ideas about the death of the sun — albeit not in as short a scale as 3,000 years — most clearly in Wells’s famous The Time Machine (1895) in its various forms. On the influence of this theory on Wells and his generation, see Gillian Beer’s “‘The Death of the Sun’: Victorian Solar Physics and Solar Myth'”, in the book Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter.
Something vaguely similar pops up in a 1933 Lovecraft dream-story sent in a letter to Dwyer…
“that thing on the table — the thing that looks like a match-box” … “The small object on the table fascinated me intensely. I seemed to know what to do with it, for I drew a pocket electric light — or what looked like one — out of my pocket and nervously tested its flashes. The light was not white but violet, and seemed less like true light than like some radioactive bombardment. […] Finally I summoned up courage and propped the small object up on the table against a book — then turned the rays of the peculiar violet light upon it. The light seemed now to be more like a rain of hail or small violet particles than like a continuous beam. As the particles struck the glassy surface at the center of the strange device, they seemed to produce a crackling noise like the sputtering of a vacuum tube through which sparks are passed. The dark glassy surface displayed a pinkish glow, and a vague white shape seemed to be taking form at its center. Then I noticed that I was not alone in the room — and put the ray-projector back in my pocket.” (from Lovecraft’s “The Evil Clergyman”, Fall 1933)
David Hambling said:
In fairness The Time Machine is largely set in the year 802,000 or so, and he does travel thirty million years to see the end of it all, so Wells was not concerned about the suns imminent demise. But radioactivity did show that energy sources were not limited to the brief durations of chemical reactions alone.
David Haden said:
True… but he does make rather a lot of the icy fate of the earth at the sun’s death, in the chapter he left out of the published book.
David Hambling said:
Yes, that one has been superseded.
Considering that he was playing with radium-based toys, it’s lucky HPL made it as far as he did — I never had toys like that!
Andy Troy said:
Lovecraft’s interest in radiation, more specifically radioactivity and radiation poisoning, figure prominently in the themes, and the titular entity, of “The Colour out of Space.” I gave a presentation on where HPL would have encountered these relatively new scientific discoveries–most specifically in Scientific American and Popular Science (the former of which Lovecraft was known to have subscribed), and newspaper coverage of the Radium Girls industrial scandal in both the New York Times and the Providence Evening Bulletin–at the 2013 Necronomicon Providence symposium.
My piece on this topic, “A Stalking Monster,” will be in the forthcoming Necronomicon proceedings from Hippocampus. I’ll let you know when it is released if you’d like, David.
David Haden said:
Thanks Andy. I have a 7,500 word essay in my Historical Context book two, “Some Notes on the Origins of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space””, which works through all the possible scientific sources for the story. Although admittedly it’s not as thorough and footnoted as it would be if I was doing it again today. I was unable to pin down the exact date of the first public news of x-ray mutagenesis (discovered 1926), though I found that Muller didn’t give his first conference paper on the discovery until 1927. There was also news in the press in 1927 of Soviet x-ray experiments on seeds. The scandal about the painting of glow-in-the-dark ‘radium dials’ by factory workers was in 1926, with a court case in 1927. Also, in the summer of 1926 two of the earliest x-ray research scientists were reported in the press as having died of their unsafe initial experiments.
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