Between research for Skeptophilia, my choice of reading material, and natural curiosity, I go down some deep rabbit holes sometimes.
This latest plunge into the netherworld of knowledge happened because I decided to reread The Lurker at the Threshold by H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth. It's the umpteenth time I've read it, and although I'm well aware of its flaws (especially the overuse of words like "eldritch," the fact that every damn character in the story lives in an "ancient gambrel-roofed house," and the seemingly rushed/thinly-plotted final section), that book has some serious atmosphere. I swear, I'll never see a stained-glass window again without thinking of the scene where the main character looks through the clear central pane of the crazy circular window in the library of the house where the story takes place -- and sees not the woods and stream lying outside, but a vista of an alien planet.
Near the end of the story, the scientist/historian Dr. Lapham is trying to convince his assistant that there's something supernatural going on, and goes through a bunch of examples from history of inexplicable occurrences. I recognized one of them as being an actual event -- the disappearance of British diplomatic envoy Benjamin Bathurst in Perleberg, Germany in 1809 -- although the way it's described makes it sound way weirder than it actually was, and it's almost certain that Bathurst was simply robbed and murdered. (This didn't stop me from giving the event a passing mention in my own novel, Sephirot. Hey, if Lovecraft can get away with it, so can I.)
The fact that the Bathurst incident has at least a basis in reality made me wonder about a couple of the others Dr. Lapham mentions. Several are references to other (fictional) Lovecraft stories, but I did wonder about his mention of sightings of mysterious undersea lights by the crews of two British ships, the light cruiser H. M. S. Caroline and the second-class cruiser H. M. S. Leander, in 1893. So I did a bit of digging, and although the ships themselves were 100% real, I couldn't find any reference to odd sightings from either one.
Anyhow, in The Lurker at the Threshold, the lights were supposedly the hallmark of the evil "Great Old One" Yog-Sothoth, who appeareth unto mankind as congeries of iridescent globes, so although I hath no idea what the fuck a "congery" is, I googled "real sightings of Yog-Sothoth," and that's when the bottom fell out of the rabbit hole.
This is how I ended up at a site called Lovecraftian Science, about which I can't for the life of me tell if the owner is serious. Apparently the guy is a legitimate limnologist/ecologist, so it could well be that he's just having a bit of fun trying to apply the methods of science to the world of the Cthulhu Mythos, but damned if he doesn't seem entirely in earnest.
Amongst the entries I saw therein:
- "Cryptobiosis in Elder Things: Drifting Through Interstellar Space" -- in which we find out that the "Elder Things" in Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" go into stasis when they're in outer space, and are propelled from one planet to another by dark energy. We also read speculation that the members of the Elder Things have a similar protein structure to tardigrades, and that's how they manage to survive the trip from one planet to the next.
- "Stephen Hawking's Ideas in a Lovecraftian Cosmos" -- wherein we learn that the titular musician in "The Music of Erich Zann" prevented an invasion of our universe by "extra-dimensional beings" by "generating micro-scale gravity waves of a very specific disturbance within space-time to link our universe with another." Whatever that means.
- "Lovecraftian Scientists: Astronomers from 'Beyond the Wall of Sleep'" -- musings on how the spirit of Joe Slater, main character in the short story mentioned in the title of the post, could have done battle with the evil entity residing near a star in the constellation of Perseus resulting in a spectacular nova observed in 1901 -- when the nova is 1,500 light years away, so the actual explosion happened 1,500 years ago. "We do not know if the luminescent being that possessed Joe Slater could travel through time as easily as space so its existence was not limited to strictly linear time as it is with us," the author writes, apparently with a straight face.
- "Lovecraft's 'Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family:' What of the Piltdown Man?" -- because there's nothing that strengthens an argument about the factual nature of a fictional story like drawing evidence from a blatant hoax.
- "'The Dunwich Horror:' Meet the Whateleys" -- in which I found out way more than I wanted to know about the mechanics of Yog-Sothoth having sex with Lavinia Whateley, along with, I shit you not, Punnett squares for the offspring thereof.
It's kind of sad that there are so many math-phobes in the world, because at its basis, there is something compelling and fascinating about the world of numbers. Humans have been driven to quantify things for millennia -- probably beginning with the understandable desire to count goods and belongings -- but it very quickly became a source of curiosity to find out why numbers work as they do.
The history of mathematics and its impact on humanity is the subject of the brilliant book The Art of More: How Mathematics Created Civilization by Michael Brooks. In it he looks at how our ancestors' discovery of how to measure and enumerate the world grew into a field of study that unlocked hidden realms of science -- leading Galileo to comment, with some awe, that "Mathematics is the language with which God wrote the universe." Brooks's deft handling of this difficult and intimidating subject makes it uniquely accessible to the layperson -- so don't let your past experiences in math class dissuade you from reading this wonderful and eye-opening book.
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