Science is everywhere (even Comic-Con)

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Sunday, July 27, 2014

Name a place you’d never expect to find a reference to science. (Note: I won’t accept “cable news” because that answer is too easy!) How about in stories written by the iconic author H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)? I’d have given you an A+ for that response. However, at 8 p.m. Saturday night at Comic-Con, I attended a panel called “Science in the Stories of H. P. Lovecraft.” And as fantastic, mythological, and bleak as his tales were, they did contain some science.

Lisa Will is an associate professor of physics and astronomy at San Diego City College. She’s also serves as astronomer at the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center. // All photos: Michael E. Bakich

In fact, in his introduction to the story The Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft wrote: “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

Was he right? A panel of scientists and Lovecraft experts discussed the science behind Lovecraft's stories. In attendance were Cody Goodfellow (Deepest, Darkest Eden: New Tales Of Hyperborea), Shane Haggard (chemistry instructor, San Diego City College), Leslie S. Klinger (The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft), Andrew Leman (The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society), and Lisa Will (astronomy and physics professor, San Diego City College).

Shane Haggard is a chemistry instructor at San Diego City College. He also has a love for steampunk, apparently.

Moderated by Aaron Vanek (The H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival and CthulhuCon-Los Angeles), this was a lively panel that included some history related to Lovecraft, brief readings from his stories, and interpretations from the two scientists in attendance. Theirs was the toughest task. For although it’s undeniable that Lovecraft knew a lot about science — he read voraciously and attended many scientific lectures near his home — it’s also apparent that he bent it to his will just like the rest of reality.

The high point for me was the panel’s discussion of The Colour Out of Space. It involves the fall of an iron meteorite and how the space rock sucked the life out of five acres in the countryside of fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts. (I submit that this location influenced the writers of Batman to name a rather famous facility in the comic “Arkham Asylum.”) This great but weird tale describes how the meteorite doesn’t cool, shrinks, and leaves behind globs with “color” that doesn’t correspond to anything in the visible spectrum. Note: I won’t spoil the ending, but remember that this is Lovecraft. Don’t expect anyone to end up in Disneyland.

Author Leslie S. Klinger has just released The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft, a must-read for fans of the famous writer.

Will explained a bit about meteorites, contrasting what we know with what Lovecraft wrote. Then Haggard talked about the object’s chemistry and spectrum. They also fielded questions from other panelists.

Throughout the entertaining hour, Vanek gave away books, CDs, and DVDs as prizes for answers to trivia questions generated by the panelists. I didn’t answer any of them, but as we all were walking out (to make room for the next hour’s panel), I said, “Can I win a prize for wearing a meteorite?” At that point, I showed him my nickel-iron belt buckle, and he gave me a T-shirt. Cool.

You never know where you’ll find science.

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