It occurred to me the other day that, in many ways, H.P. Lovecraft was spot on in his description of the universe. For those unfamiliar with early 20th century American horror authors, Lovecraft is widely regarded as the father of modern horror. His stories concerned a vast, unfeeling universe populated by superhuman beings who regarded us much like we regard ants. Now we know this as cosmic horror, a subgenre characterized by a strange world that lives just out of our normal sight and senses, that only an unfortunate few brush up against.
Now, when I say that Lovecraft’s universe is a lot like ours, I’m not saying that Cthulhu is sleeping under the depths of the Pacific Ocean, waiting for the stars to align right for his awakening. So far as we know there are no Elder Gods or Great Old Ones. No, what Lovecraft got right was that the Universe is vaster and stranger than humans could ever conceive of up until now. Keep in mind that in his day, we were only just discovering that there were other galaxies than the Milky Way. Up until that point, it was believed that the entire universe was contained just within our galaxy. Now we know that the distance from our Earth to the edge of the universe is about 13.7 billion light years (as opposed to the width of the Milky Way, about 100,000 light years across).
A light year is the distance it takes light to travel in a year. For my American readers, that is about 6 trillion miles (10 trillion kilometers for my foreign friends). To put that in perspective, it takes the light from out sun 8 minutes to travel 93 million miles. Now, from here to the edge of the visible universe is 13.7 billion light years, approximately. As for the width of the universe, that is less well defined. That depends on the shape of the universe, and other factors. Also, we believe that the universe itself stretches well beyond the visible edge of the universe, as the universe is continually expanding, faster and faster. One estimate I saw put the width of the universe, including what we can’t see presumably, at about 78 billion light years. Let that sink in a moment.
…ready? Okay. Now astronomers believe that the universe itself is 13.7 billion years old. The earth is 4.5 billion years old. Life on Earth is 3.8 billion years old. Modern humans have existed about 200,000 years. Human civilization is only about 5,000 years old. We’ve been shooting things into space about 50 years now.
It’s easy to see how Lovecraft was right. Science has shown us that the universe and time itself are vast almost beyond the ability for our minds to grasp them. Earlier I said that humans were ants to the dark gods of Lovecraft’s imagination, but in terms of the sheer scale of our own universe we are smaller still, more like atoms than ants.
But it doesn’t end with size and age. While so far as we know Earth is the only planet with life, that doesn’t mean there aren’t really bizarre and monstrous non-living things out there. Black holes come to mind, those infinite wells of gravity from which even light cannot escape (stranger still, some believe they harbor universes within their depths, and that our own universe may lay within a black hole. Weird huh?). Then there are neutron stars, which are basically failed black holes that result from stars that didn’t quite have the mass to give birth to a singularity when they died. Neutron star material is so densely packed that one teaspoon of it would weigh almost 900 times as much as the Great Pyramid. A neutron star is, on average, approximately the size of New York City. They are the lighthouses of the universe, beaming light in the form of x-rays and radio waves from their poles. Astronomers on the hunt for neutron stars look for tell-tale flashing, so regular you could literally use it to keep time. Stranger still, neutron stars are the universe’s musicians.
There’s all that and more. Super Earths, twice the mass of our own. Stars with masses 150 times that of our own sun. Giant clouds of ethyl alcohol. Dust particles in nebular clouds that mimic DNA helices. Rogue stars, shot loose from their orbits by black holes, flying through the cosmos at a million miles an hour. And, at least in one corner of the universe that we know of, beings with consciousness able to appreciate all the terrible wonder around them. A Lovecraftian universe indeed.