Sunday, February 12, 2006

Lovecraft and Mathematics

Before we tackle From Beyond, we need to pause and discuss Lovecraft and his complex relationship to mathematics. How did someone with poor math skills write such incredible scienti-fiction based on eerie quantum mathematical principles?

In the Dreams of the Witch House, HPL makes explicit references to Reimannian mathematics. However, he alludes to his poor performance in mathematics with the reference, “As it was, he failed in Calculus D and Advanced General Psychology...”. [1, p. 306].

Elsewhere we see a statement he made in 1931 [2, pp.63,64], “...I was not bad – except for mathematics, which repelled and exhausted me ... it was algebra that formed the bugbear ... the whole thing disappointed me bitterly .. of course advanced astronomy is simply a mass of mathematics ... it was clear I hadn't the brains to be an astronomer and that was a pill I couldn't swallow with equanimity.”

In The Thing on the Doorstep we read, “Derby went through Miskatonic University in Arkham ... {and matriculated at} sixteen and {he} completed his course in three years, majoring in English and French literature and receiving high marks in everything but mathematics and the sciences.”

Lovecraft was accurate, he did struggle and fail. A 1992 study [3] clearly shows not only what was his problem as a child but most children today. The study set out to answer the perplexing question: Why do very intelligent children do well in humanities but even our brightest so so terribly in mathematics and science?

The results came back quickly. The young brain learns humanities by association and mathematics by logical memorization. These are very different parts of the brain. When a big gap in attendance – like illness or the usual 3 month summer vacation – occurs the humanity subject is quickly recalled and progress made. But the lack of applied work during the time gap erases huge portions of the accumulated mathematical building blocks which have to be relearned. Thus, in those few months back in school that the math is relearned, the humanities has moved ahead by leaps. Math never catches up.

However, good students who took summer math camps and studied even lightly during those time gaps outperformed the other students and sometimes by enormous amounts. Nations in which students had shorter breaks tended to have exceptional mathematical and foundational skills and constantly score years ahead of American students.

As long as Lovecraft had excellent tutors drawn from the Brown University elite and good health he did well. After 1904, there was no money for tutors and his health continued to plague him. Susan often kept him home and he even missed most or all of whole years. There was no way he could succeed. He quit high school.

Yet, as an adult autodidact, he tackled the philosophical aspects of mathematics with a vengeance and wrestled with Einsteinan and quantum physics. In some cases, he was more comfortable with quantum philosophy than even Einstein – who refused to accept critical and fundamental aspects of the uncertainty principle.

Lovecraft could intuitively guess at ramifications of the non-classical model and so we will see in From Beyond, that time, space, and multi-dimensionality are used as a basis for his story. However, he could no more work out a wave equation than flap his arms and fly to the moon.
I leave you with an amusing anecdote. In 1920, his Aunt Gamwell was called upon to substitute teach the 7th grade and the math portion was proportioned out (on the hush) to HPL. He states [4, pp.67ff], “...but then arose the grim specter – the hated, damned thing – arithmetic! Fancy ... a person out of schoolbooks since the '90's ... most of the methods are new to me ... the text-book is a crime ... but natheless {sic} the principles of mathematics are ... unvarying ... and brains were made to use ... i still remember enough to do {the word problems} detest them as I do! {I corrected} papers covered in everything from vulgar fractions to cube root ... much as I loathe arithmetical pursuits, I'd have been ashamed in my grammar school days to turn in such work.”


1 H. P. Lovecraft: The Dreams of the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, Penguin, 2004.
2 H.P. Lovecraft In His Time: A Dreamer and A Visionary.
3 http://www.udel.edu/PR/UpDate/93/1/21.html
4 Letters to Alfred Galpin

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