Thursday, March 02, 2006

Lovecraft on Mars and a 100 Year Update

Lovecraft was a serious-minded scientist. One of his fascinations was with mars, and a penultimate thrill for him was to meet Perceval Lowell. In two essays, he discusses Mars. Fascinatingly, a recent article discussed habitation fo Mars by terraforming.

“No planet in the solar system has been the subject of more baseless speculation. ... If living beings dwell on a world they must have air, water, light and heat.” [1]

“The atmosphere of Mars must be infintely thinner than is that of the earth .. the temperature vastly lower. .. The public press has ... overflowed with senseless written matter of the habitableness of Mars. Now, baseless as most of these speculations may be, it is nevertheless not impossible that living beings of some sort may dwell on the surface of the planet ... however left to the imagination of the reader ... or to the ingenious novelist.” [2]

“Little green men from Mars have long been a part of human lore ... but the scuttlebutt bouncing around the resort hotels on Waikiki Beach at the recent Pacifichem conference suggested that real people might attempt to inhabit the red planet.

“Joseph S. Thrasher of the U. of Alabama ... suggested that SF5NO2 {a complex fluorosilica nitrate} would be a greenhouse gas {and} appropriately dispersed into Mars' atmosphere could warm the planet enough to make it habitable. {quoting Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2006, 45, 938}

“{An earlier} paper {2001} on terraforming ...outlines a supposition that if the martian atmosphere could acquire ... an earthlike atmosphere and pressure ... a parts per billion cocktail would include chlorofluorocarbon, fluorocarbons, and sulfur fluorides.” [3]

All that technobabble should do two things. One is to see the exciting (shades of Gene Roddenberry) possiblilties of humanity's future. The other is to shudder at how carelessly and lightly we feel we can impose our potential manifest destiny on other worlds.

Lovecraft the scientist might have been giddy at the merger of science and astronomy. He also might have speculated that should we trespass on eldritch lands, we might just get exterminated ourselves.

1 Is Mars an Inhabited World?, (Sept. 1906) Collected Essays: Volume 3: Science, Joshi, 2005
2 VII. Mars and the Asteroids, op.cit. (March 1915)
3 Newscripts: Life on Mars, February 20, 2006, Chemistry and Engineering News. p. 72.

1 comment:

Tom Lera said...

Lovecraft wasn't the only author influenced by Mars.

Poe wrote and essay "AN ESSAY ON THE MATERIAL AND SPIRITUAL UNIVERSE" It starts: "IT is with humility really unassumed -- it is with a sentiment even of awe -- that I pen the opening sentence of this work: for of all conceivable subjects I approach the reader with the most solemn -- the most comprehensive -- the most difficult -- the most august. What terms shall I find sufficiently simple in their sublimity -- sufficiently sublime in their simplicity -- for the mere enunciation of my theme?

I design to speak of the Physical, Metaphysical and Mathematical -- of the Material and Spiritual Universe:- of its Essence, its Origin, its Creation, its Present Condition and its Destiny. I shall be so rash, moreover, as to challenge the conclusions, and thus, in effect, to question the sagacity, of many of the greatest and most justly reverenced of men."

Edgar Rice Burroughs started writing his Martian adventures in 1911, and even though science claims there is no life on Mars his stories remain vibrant and timeless tales, because Burroughs knew the appeal and power of the Martian myth. Writers like Ray Bradbury and scientists like Carl Sagan have acknowledged that Burroughs' Martian tales were the wellspring from which their own careers arose.

With his opening trilogy - considered one of the landmarks of science fiction - Burroughs created a vast and sweeping epic. Captain John Carter of the Confederate Army is whisked to Mars and discovers a dying world of dry ocean beds where giant four-armed barbarians rule, of crumbling cities home to an advanced but decaying civilization, a world of strange beasts and savage combat, a world where love, honor and loyalty become the stuff of adventure. The world of Barsoom.

In eleven books Burroughs takes the reader all around the Red Planet (and even to Jupiter), while the action and excitement never let up.

There was a specific event that inspired H.G. Wells. In 1894 Mars was positioned particularly closely to Earth, leading to a great deal of observation and discussion. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had reported seeing "canali" on Mars, meaning "channels," but the term was mistranslated as "canals," leading to much speculation about life on the red planet. [Although scientists were able eventually to photograph what seem to be large stream beds on Mars, these are on a much smaller scale than the blobs and blotches which misled Schiaparelli into thinking he had seen channels.] One of the 1894 observers, a M. Javelle of Nice, claimed to have seen a strange light on Mars, which further stimulated speculation about life there.

Wells turned Javelle into Lavelle of Java, an island much on people's minds because of the explosion there in 1883 of Mount Krakatoa, which killed 50,000 people and drastically influenced Earth's climate for the next year.
Wells became famous partly as a prophet. In various writings he predicted tanks, aerial bombing, nuclear war, and--in this novel--gas warfare, laser-like weapons, and industrial robots. It was his tragedy that his most successful predictions were of destructive technologies, and that he lived to experience the opening of the atomic age in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Wells was to become famous as a socialist and a utopian, but his science fiction novels are almost uniformly pessimistic about human nature and the future.

The science of our solar system and others object in space have led horror and science fiction authors write some great stuff. Lovecraft stands tall with them.


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