Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lovecraft Right Again: Giant Prehistoric Penguins

Meet Inkayacu paracasensis, the Water King. Fossils from this 36 million year old penguin remarkably show us its color, a pattern of brown and gray rather than the black and white of modern penguins.

Possibly alien fossils, hidden anomalous mountains, strange lifeforms reviving from the ice, and now giant penguins. It seems like there should be a Moore's Law for how inevitably Lovecraft's creations come to life in the real world.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Chariots of the Elder Things? Nicholas Roerich's UFO

"Star of the Hero" Nicholas Roerich, 1932 (Wikicommons)

Over at his blog Mirage Men (the name of his recently released book Mirage Men: An Adventure into Paranoia, Espionage, Psychological Warfare, and UFOs, arguing that much of the UFO cultural phenomenon has been deceptive government activity), Mark Pilkington discusses Nicholas Roerich's UFO sighting. In 1927, Roerich and his team saw "something big and shiny reflecting sun, like a huge oval moving at great speed" in the sky. The sighting, before there was the idea of flying saucers or UFOs, may be the result of a joint Chinese and Swedish research team launching (you guessed it) weather balloons. You can read the account on pages 361 - 362 of the book Altai-Himalaya (excuse the difficult navigation system at the link), published in 1929

Roerich was one of Lovecraft's inspirations for At the Mountains of Madness, and he and his paintings of temples amidst the Himalayas are name-checked in the novella as a visual cue for the city of the Elder Things. In turn, the Elder Things, through Maurice Doreal, worked their way into the earliest stew of flying saucers, and the idea of a massive and/or ancient secret city of civilization involving UFOs in Antarctica has never dissipated.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Three Real World Versions of "The Colour Out of Space": Part 3 - The Shadow Under Gypsumville

Exhibit MET003: The Lake St. Martin's

Before we examine our last meteorite, let's note that Tentaclii has put together several scientific articles and news items from the time period Lovecraft wrote "The Colour Out of Space," as examples of the intellectual context for the tale. Go check it out.

Previously, we have examined two recent claims of meteorite strikes, and their unusual properties. The Red Rain of Kerala of 2001 may derive from an airburst meteor (though other research suggests it is just algae), with a handful of scientists suggesting it seeded the earth with extraterrestrial life forms. Three years ago, a meteor struck southern Peru, damaging nearby buildings and livestock, and resulting in villagers claiming illness after exposure to the fallen rock.

Our third case is of a much older meteorite, far older than humanity. And like the Colour that fell under what would become the Quabbin Reservoir outside of Arkham, Massachusetts, the Lake St. Martin Bolide has actually poisoned the groundwater of the rural residents of the small Canadian town of Gypsumville.

Roughly 230 million years ago, a large meteorite struck the earth, leaving a 24 km wide crater. This land is now in Manitoba, Canada, And that land is befouled. The place looks pretty blasted, though not exactly a heath (check out a visit by a geologist studying landing sites for Martian probes). Water there has unusually high concentrations of fluoride. The substance conjures up either visions of healthy teeth, or paranoid ravings of conspiracy theorists worried about the essence of their bodily fluids. But high intake of fluoride can actually cause "damage to teeth, softening of bones, calcified tendons and ligaments and neurological damage." It's not exactly the horror that befell the Gardner farm in "The Colour Out of Space," but there are some points of comparison.

The area is not heavily populated (check out impact and geological maps here)(and here). One resident of the region describes it as "barren stretches of boreal forest, inhabited only for resource exploitation or sheer force of habit." The people of two First Nations towns and the town of Gypsumville, would be ill-advised to drink the local groundwater, as it contains levels of fluoride above safety limits. A 2008 paper in the journal Geology demonstrates that the meteor strike broke up the local sediments through melting and shock, making them more susceptible to leaching, producing the toxic levels of fluoride. Simply put, a hidden deadly horror from outer space is reaching out from the vast depths of time to poison these backwoods communities.

In conclusion, visitors from outer space can (in addition to falling on your or exploding) poison you, possibly make you sick, and maybe propagate alien life on your planet.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Three Real World Versions of "The Colour Out of Space": Part 2 - The Horror at Carancas

Exhibit Met002: Fragment of the Carancas Meteorite.
Image by Meteor Recon (Wikicommons).
On special loan in Miskatonic Museum's Nahum Gardner Memorial Meteorite Gallery.

Yesterday, we viewed sample from the Red Rain of Kerala. Samples of the water show apparently biological elements that are considered by many researchers to be perhaps a local algae. But a handful of scientists argue that the water contains unearthly cells that reproduce at high temperatures and may have a chemical signature tying them to a planetary nebula. These researchers suggest the rain may contain material from an exploded meteorite.

Today we look at the second of our three real world cases that bring to mind H. P. Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space." Considered one of Lovecraft's finest works, this short story describes how rural residents and farmers outside of Arkham, Massachusetts became sick after a bizarre meteorite struck on their land, with tragic consequences.

In 2007, a scenario very much like "The Colour Out of Space" played out in Peru and on the global media stage. On September 15 of that year, a meteor impacted in southern Peru, near the Bolivian border. A large crater, some reports describe it as 30 meters wide, was soon filled with boiling water, with some video and testimony suggesting additional impact damage to buildings and livestock. After the impact, fumes (including sulfur) were reported from the area of the impact, and soon several hundred people complained of headaches and vomiting, including several police officers sent to take samples of the meteorite.

In addition to the meteor explanation, initial skeptical reports wondered if the phenomenon were geological, while conspiracy theories suggested it might be an American spy satellite. Neither turned out to be correct as further study pointed not just to a meteor, but a chondritic rocky meteor (as opposed to a more typical iron meteor, information here). Geologists, including several from Brown University (the model for Miskatonic University, and located in Lovecraft's home of Providence), confirmed that a meteor struck, and that it did indeed create shockwaves and damage nearby structures with flying debris. They also found that the meteors (it had broken up during atmospheric entry) struck the earth at extremely high speed. Papers by those researchers, as well as more photos of the fragments and the site can be found here.

They did not, however, find anything to point to the meteor or any physical cause for the reports of illness after the strike. They instead suggested psychosomatic illness resulting from panic after the impact. A great deal of dust and soot would have been kicked up and inhaled by people and animals, but initial suggestions that arsenic in the soil had sickened villagers have not been supported by evidence for sufficient doses of the metalloid.

This time, unlike "The Colour Out of Space," the scientists did repeated and thorough investigation, rather than dismissing the stories of rural farmers out of hand. But the possibly extraterrestrial source of the subsequent illness remains without a definitive answer in both cases.

Tomorrow, we explore The Shadow Under Gypsumville!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Three Real World Versions of "The Colour Out of Space": Part 1 - The Red Rains of Kerala

Exhibit MET001: Microscopic view of Kerala Red Rain sample
Image by V. Sasi Kumar (Wikicommons)
On special loan in Miskatonic Museum's Nahum Gardner Memorial Meteorite Gallery

Part 1 of 3

Of all his stories, H. P. Lovecraft considered "The Colour Out of Space" to be his best. Many critics agree that this tale, one of the subtler and more science fictional but still moody and atmospheric, is amongst his best. The story tells of a bizarre meteorite impact outside of Arkham, Massachusetts, and the subsequent ill effects on local residents exposed to the unknown substance or life form carried to earth from outer space.

The Miskatonic Museum specializes in pointing out parallels in real world scientific and historical occurrences between Lovecraft, his tales, and the Cthulhu Mythos he spawned. And "The Colour Out of Space" is one of the most fertile in this regard. Three examples come to mind.

The first does not directly involve the sighting or recovery of a meteorite. Nor does it involve any ill-effects to humans or livestock. But if a handful of researchers are correct, it is quite literally The Colour Out of Space. And it happens to be red. For two months in 2001, red rains fell over the state of Kerala in Southern India. This phenomenon has become known as the Red Rain of Kerala, and has become a sticking point in discussions of the hypothesis of panspermia. This concept holds that microscopic lifeforms could travel from world to world, being ejected from one planet, surviving vacuum in dormancy, and then possibly contaminating and prospering on a new planet. This would be similar to the claims, found elsewhere in the museum, of Martian fossils in a meteorite discovered in Antarctica. In the case of the Kerala red rains, a meteor would have exploded in the upper atmosphere, seeding the clouds with microbes from outer space. In addition to objections that debris from a meteorite would probably not continue to rain down for two months, rains of unusual color are not that uncommon, and can be produced by sandstorms, volcanic eruptions and other known natural phenomena.

Kerala Red Rain samples. Image by V. Sasi Kumar (Wikicommons)

In the case of the Kerala rains, samples of water were taken and subjected to various forms of analysis. Some of the reports describe red-colored biological cells, in some reports without the DNA that would be found in earthly bacteria (though the accuracy of this point has been disputed). In a recent paper, these cells are reported to reproduce at high temperatures (131 degrees Centigrade and possibly up to 300 degrees Centigrade), but not at room temperature.

The paper concludes that the cells fluoresce in a spectrum similar to hydrocarbons detected in the Red Rectangle Nebula. Obviously such amazing claims have engendered substantial skepticism. The Wikipedia entry on the Red Rains details many of the criticisms, including the likelihood that prior heavy rains in the region caused excessive growth of the orange-colored lichen Trentepohlia, and that or perhaps a rust fungus was responsible (a local algal source has been suggested, though not determined, by one of the primary proponents of the general hypothesis of panspermia). (EDIT: You can read or listen more about this explanation in a recent post/podcast at Skeptoid) Institutional full disclosure would have us note that in the case of the Quabbin Reservoir impact, as noted in "The Colour Out of Space," Miskatonic professors were equally skeptical of the Gardner meteorite, with tragic results.

Tomorrow, part 2: The Horror at Carancas

Monday, September 6, 2010

Regnum Congo and the Horror of Theodor de Bry's Engravings

Exhibit EXH002: Pigafetta's A Report of the Kingdom of Congo (1881 [1591]).
In collaboration with Miskatonic University's Orne Library, Special Collections

One of the most infamous books referenced in the works of H. P. Lovecraft is Regnum Congo, the centerpiece of "The Picture in the House." Lovecraft did not read this book, written in 1591 by Filippo Pigafetta, titled in English, A Report of the Kingdom of Congo, and the Surrounding Countries, Drawn Out of the Writings and Discourses of the Portuguese, Duarte Lopez. Instead, he read Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature, a page from which is reproduced above. But we can read a copy of Pigafetta's work. In it he does describe the Anziques as being cannibals. He does not find this that unusual in a global scale, but Pigafetta holds the Anziques to be unique in that they willingly cannibalize members of their own community. From Chapter 5
They have shambles for human flesh, as we have of animals, even eating the enemies they have killed in battle, and selling their slaves if they can get a good price for them; if not, they give them to the butcher, who cuts them in pieces, and then sells them to be roasted or boiled. It is a remarkable fact in the history of this people, that any who are tired of life, or wish to prove themselves brave and courageous, esteem it great honour to expose themselves to death by an act which shall show their contempt for life. Thus they offer themselves for slaughter, and as the faithful vassals of princes, wishing to do them service, not only give themselves to be eaten, but their slaves also, when fattened, are killed and eaten. It is true many nations eat human flesh, as in the East Indies, Brazil, and elsewhere, but to devour the flesh of their own enemies, friends, subjects, and even relations, is a thing without example, except amongst the Anzichi tribes.
Today, the people referred to as Anziques are the BaTeke, living in the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Gabon. They are part of the Bantu language family. And as is usually the case with cannibalism stories, they came to European chroniclers from unfriendly neighbors, making the veracity of such claims doubtful without additional evidence.

But this did not stop the reproduction of the stories, and especially the image for centuries. Engraver Theodor de Bry created the image which so impressed Huxley, and in turn inspired Lovecraft's tale of backwoods New England cannibalism. Illustrations by de Bry have become some of the most reproduced in portrayals of European exploration in the 16th century. He worked with reports from various travelers and chroniclers, such as John White (check out this section of Virtual Jamestown for comparisons, commentary, and more) but did not actually journey to Africa or the Americas himself. Nonetheless, his fascinating and at times disturbing imagery shows up again and again in both popular and scholarly presentations. His studies of the native of Virginia are very commonly used, and can be viewed at several online galleries, such as this one from the University of North Carolina Libraries.

Theodor de Bry also illustrated an edition of Bartolome de las Casas' A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, an influential polemic against Spanish cruelties in the American colonies. These images are amongst the most horrifying de Bry ever produced, which is saying something, putting the centerpiece of "The Picture in the House" to shame. The book and the engravings were instrumental in establishing The Black Legend against the Spaniards, which portrayed them as monsters sacking the New World through mass torture and murder. There was indeed plenty of cruelty and destruction, but it is worth noting that the propagandistic emphasis on horrible Spanish excesses served political purposes in the national and religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, and even up through the Spanish Civil War to the present. The nations pointing out Spanish atrocities would have their own massacres and ethnic cleansing in colonies in North America.

I myself had an experience which calls to mind "The Picture in the House." Prior to my work with the archaeology of the Spanish Conquest, I was conducting prehistoric archaeological excavation in El Salvador. I had brought with me, amongst a handful of other books, a copy of Charles Hudson's Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South's Ancient Chiefdoms, which featured some of the de Bry illustrations from las Casas. This engraving in particular horrified me.

Cannibalism was also depicted, but for some reason the bits of people, and especially the anguished flailing of the maimed, bothered me at a core level. I knew that the taking of noses and ears was a common punishment for rebellion in feudal Europe, and that added to the reality of the horror depicted. For the remainder of my stay during that project, a period of several months, this image gnawed at me. I tried to avoid it while finishing the book, yet every so often felt compelled to seek it out, as if confronting the image would take away some of the fear that had gripped me. Only once out of El Salvador, and the claustrophobic apartment I lived in, and with many other books and other media, did the image's effect dissipate. Today it does not bother me in any undue fashion. But at the time, during a time period when there was great uncertainty in my life, and I felt somewhat trapped in situations not of my making both in a foreign land and in my larger life, de Bry's imagery chilled me to the core.