HALLOWEEN SPECIAL III: Lovecraft, The Tunguska Event and The Colour Out of Space.

Tunguska forest (Photograph taken by Evgeny Krinov near the Hushmo river, 1929).

Tunguska forest (Photograph taken by Evgeny Krinov near the Hushmo river, 1929).

“And by night all Arkham had heard of the great rock that fell out of the sky and bedded itself in the ground beside the well at the Nahum Gardner place.”

“The Colour Out of Space” is a short story written by  H. P. Lovecraft in 1927.  The story is set in the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts, where an unnamed narrator investigates a local area known as the “blasted heath”. Ammi Pierce, a local man, relates him the tragic story of a man named Nahum Gardner and how his life crumbled when a great rock fell out of the sky onto his farm. Within the meteorite there was a coloured globule impossible to describe that infected Gardner’s family, and spread across the property, killing all living things. It’s the first of Lovecraft’s major tales that combines horror and science fiction. The key question of the story of course is the meteorite. Although “the coloured globule” inside the meteorite has mutagenic properties we cannot define their nature. But as Lovecraft stated once, the things we fear most are those that we are unable to picture.

H.P. Lovecraft’s love for astronomy is well known. As an amateur astronomer, Lovecraft attended several lectures from leading astronomers and physicists of his time. In 1906 he wrote a letter to the Scientific American on the subject of  finding planets in the solar system beyond Neptune. Around this time he began to write two astronomy columns for the Pawtuket Valley Gleaner and the Providence Tribune. He also wrote a treatise, A Brief Course in Astronomy – Descriptive, Practical, and Observational; for Beginners and General Readers. In several of his astronomical articles he describes meteors as  “the only celestial bodies which may be actually touched by human hands”.

e98c4-lovecraftscientificamerican2

“The Colour Out of Space” was published nineteen year after the Tunguska Event. On the morning of June 30, 1908, eyewitnesses reported a large fireball crossing the sky above Tunguska in Siberia. The object entered Earth’s atmosphere traveling at a speed of about 33,500 miles per hour and released the energy equal to 185 Hiroshima bombs. The night skies glowed and the resulting seismic shockwave was registered with sensitive barometers as far away as England. In 1921, Leonid Kulik, the chief curator for the meteorite collection of the St. Petersburg museum led an expedition to Tunguska, but failed in the attempt to reach the area of the blast. Later, in 1927, a new expedition, again led by Kulik, discovered the huge area of leveled forest that marked the place of the Tunguska “meteorite” fall. At the time, Kulik mistook shallow depressions called thermokarst holes for many meteorites craters. However, he didn’t find remnants of the meteorite, and continued to explore the area until World War II. In the early 1930s, British astronomer Francis Whipple suggested that the Tunguska Event was caused by the core of a small comet, while Vladimir Vernadsky, suggested the cause was a lump of cosmic matter. (Rubtsov, 2009). More than a century later the cause of the Tunguska Event remains a mystery.

AmazingStories1927-09

The cover of “The Colour Out of Space” by Frank R. Paul, Amazing Stories, September 1927.

The enigmatic nature of the Tunguska Event inspired several fictional works. In the novel “Extinction Event”, a spin-off book for the science fiction series Primeval, the Tunguska event opened a gargantuan anomaly that periodically opens every few decades. The anomaly is linked to the late Cretaceous, just before the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. The Tunguska Event was also included in two episodes of The X-Files (“Tunguska” and “Terma”). The show suggested that the incident was caused by an asteroid impact. In the plot, Fox Mulder and Alex Krycek traveled to the site of the impact, and discovered a military installation where Russian scientists study the black oil found inside the rock, which contained a microbial form of alien life capable of possessing a human body. In the episode “Piper Maru”, the same alien organism infected Krycek.

After 107 years, the Tunguska Event is still a mystery. Recently it was suggested that the Lake Cheko, a 300-m-wide lake situated a few kilometres from the assumed epicentre of the 1908 Tunguska event, is an impact crater, but several lines of observational evidence contradict the hypothesis.

 

References:

Lovecraft, Howard P. (1927). “The Colour Out of Space”.

Joshi, S. T. (2001). A dreamer and a visionary: H.P. Lovecraft in his time. Liverpool University Press, 302.

Rubtsov, V. (2009): The Tunguska Mystery. Springer-Publisher: 318

 

Advertisements

Annie Montague Alexander, Naturalist and Fossil Hunter.

alexanderfield

Annie Montague Alexander (Image: Gateway Science Museum)

Annie Montague Alexander was born on December 29, 1867, in Honolulu, Hawaii. She was the oldest daughter of Samuel Thomas Alexander and Martha Cooke. Both of her parents were the children of missionaries from New England who had come to the Hawaiian Archipelago in 1832. Her father pioneered in the raising of sugar cane on Maui, and founder of Alexander & Baldwin, Inc., one of the biggest companies in Hawaii.

Annie was educated at home by a governess until age fourteen, when she attended Punahou School in Honolulu for one year. In 1882, she moved with her family to Oakland, California. In the fall of 1887, she attended the Lasell Seminary for Young Women, a junior college in Auburndale, Massachusetts. At Lasell, she would join a close childhood friend from Maui, Mary Beckwith. During the two years she spent there she not enrolled in any science classes but studied nineteenth-century history, political economy, civil government, German, French, logic, dress cutting, and photography. Shortly after, she started to study painting in Paris. Unfortunately she began to suffer severe headaches after long hours at the easel and was warned of the possibility of blindness. Later, she enrolled in a training program for prospective nurses at a local hospital, but dropped after a short time and travelled to Europe with her family. In 1899 she met Martha Beckwith, the younger sister of her childhood friend,Mary Beckwith. They became great friends and both went on a trip to explore Oregon and California. Martha, a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, encouraged Annie to broaden her knowledge of the natural world. A year later, she started attending lectures at the University of California, becoming particularly interested in lectures on paleontology given by Dr. John C. Merriam. That was the beginning of the long relationship between Annie Montague Alexander and the University of California at Berkeley, a relationship that would prove exceptionally advantageous to both of them.

e212591db4c705a8b5f50d473c04889a

Annie Montague Alexander during a field trip to Nevada, 1905. (Image: University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley)

At first, Annie limited her involvement to funding several of Merriam’s fossil hunting expeditions, but by the summer of 1901, Annie joined her instructor Dr. Merriam and Vance C. Osmont, an assistant professor of mineralogy at the University of California in a field trip to Shasta County, California. Then she financed and led her own expedition to the Fossil Lake region of southern Oregon. She and her group recovered over 100 fossils from a variety of extinct mammals, including miniature horses and camels. In a letter to Martha she wrote: “The fever for amassing these strange treasures might make of me a collector of the most greedy type, unmoved by ‘threats of Hell or hopes of Paradise.’”

The following summer, Annie financed and organized a new fossil collecting expedition to Shasta County in northern California.  She uncover three important ichthyosaur skeletons, including one nearly complete and exceptionally well-preserved specimen. After examining the skeleton, Merriam concluded that it was a new species of ichthyosaur, which he named Shastasaurus alexandrae in Annie’s honor. She organized a second field trip to Shasta County. Once again, she made an extraordinary discovery: a new genus of ichthyosaur. The fossil was named Thalattosaurus alexandrae as a tribute to Annie.

In 1904, she embarked with her father to a long safari to Africa. Her beloved father died during trip. To recover from her loss, Annie turned to the paleontological fieldwork. She later declared: “It is strange how absorbing this work is. We forget the outside world”.

Annie Montague Alexander on a 1923 expedition in France.

Annie Montague Alexander on a 1923 expedition in France. (Image: Alexander & Baldwin, Inc.)

In the fall of 1905, Annie met C. Hart Merriam chief of the United States Biological Survey. Then she financed a paleontological expedition to the West Humboldt Range in Nevada, to explore the Triassic limestones of the region. This trip, know as the  “Saurian Expedition,” was a great success. Under the leadership of Professor John C. Merriam, the group discovered twenty-five specimens of ichthyosaurs, including some of the largest in the world and the most complete ever found in North America. Annie, later wrote an account of the expedition, illustrated with her own photographs. During that time she met Joseph Grinnell, a young naturalist from Pasadena, California. Grinnell told her of the need for a natural history museum on the west coast. She became enthusiastic with the project and she insisted that the museum should be housed at the University of California. She and Joseph Grinnell would have complete control of the museum and its employees. The cost of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology was covered almost entirely by Annie. A year later she helped to funding the Department of Paleontology and in 1921 she established the university’s Museum of Paleontology.

Annie’s last extended trip was in the winter of 1947—48 to Baja California, when she and her longtime companion Louise Kellogg  spent three months collecting more than forty-six hundred botanical specimens.

Annie Alexander died, on September 10, 1950, at the age of eighty-two. Her ashes were buried in Makawao Cemetery, Maui. Her contributions were recognized by zoologists and botanists, who named two mammals, two birds, six fossils, and two plants after her.

References:

Barbara R. Stein, “On Her Own Terms. Annie Montague Alexander and the Rise of Science in the American West”. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001
Rianna M. Williams, “Annie Montague Alexander: Explorer, Naturalist, Philanthropist”. Hawaiian Journal of History, volume 28, 1994.