Saturday, September 12, 2009

Two August Anniversaries

I meant to post on this earlier, but life just got in the way. There were two interesting anniversaries in August, in the same week in fact, and I am not sure many people have noticed the significance of this particularly conjugation of dates.

The first, August 19, was the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the Burgess shale. For those of you who took biology in a Louisiana public high school, the Burgess shale is a fossil formation from British Columbia, dating back half a billion years to the middle of the Cambrian period, the time of the "Cambrian explosion" when life on the planet (exclusively aquatic at the time) underwent a tremendous increase in both the complexity and diversity, a veritable freak show of multi-tentacled thimgamubobs and toothy terrors and armor-plated doodads - OK, I'm a physicist, not a biologist, so I would have to go to Wikipedia to get names but the point here is that even biologists and paleontologists have difficulty classifying all the Cambrian weirdness. I mean, they named one of the species Hallucigenia, fer cryin' out loud. That's how weird it is! The famous trilobites date from this period, and they are some of the least strange creatures from the Cambrian period. Much of this fauna is unique to this period, dying out in one of the great extinction events that marked the transition from the Cambrian to the Ordovician period, when the first land plants begin to appear.

Let us sleep, and dream out our dreams, and hope those dreams are not disturbed by visions of chthonic monsters who dwell in the deeps. For when we awake, it is August 20, the birthday H. P. Lovecraft. In fact, it would have been his 119th birthday, had he not died at the relatively young age of 46 (an age of relevance to your humble blogger). Lovecraft is known, of course, for his contributions to the modern horror story, of creating the Chthulhu mythos and the Lovecraft school of writers, ranging from his contemporary August Derleth down to modern writers like Neil Gaiman, who has set more than one short story in "Lovecraft Country". It is Lovecraft who gave us the Necronomicron, the ghastly village of Arkham, Miskatonic University, the Dunwich Horror. He was the one responsible for turning romanticism and gnosticism on its head, imagining a universe where it is better not to know the ultimate reality, a universe in which ultimate reality is unspeakably evil, where secret cults pray to a mad sleeping god who will destroy them and everyone else when he awakens.

Lovecraft's first interest was in science, chemistry and astronomy in particular. He even published a Science Gazette when he was a youngster, but he could not do the math to become an astronomer. Alas, another life cut short by differential equations.

So here is an exercise for the reader: Which of these images are creatures found in the Burgess Shale, and which ones are the Old Ones from the Chthulu mythos? Has any English majors written any dissertations yet on how the paleontological discoveries in the Burgess Shale, first made as Lovecraft turned 19, influenced the imagery of his later writings?

(Answers: Top - An artists rendering of Cambrian sealife; Center - Anomolocaris, or "Unusual Shrimp", a meter long monster found in the Burgess Shale; Bottom - Old Chthulhu himself, said to be sleeping in the dead city R'lyeh.)

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