Tapestry

How this astronomer learned to 'embrace the void' through cosmic horror

When thinking about the universe or delving into dark fantasy, astronomer Leo Alcorn believes the prime directive should be to “embrace the void” and “love what you don’t understand.”
Rome's Culture Councillor Lorenza Fruci, second from right, watches a demonstration of the Rome's planetarium during its presentation to the press in Rome in 2021. (Domenico Stinellis/Associated Press)

As a postdoctoral astronomy student at the University of Toronto, Leo Alcorn came to realize that her field has a lot in common with the cosmic horror genre.

She said there is a tangible link between the galaxy clusters she studies and the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. 

When thinking about the universe or delving into dark fantasy, Alcorn believes the prime directive should be to "embrace the void" and "love what you don't understand."

Here's part of her conversation with Tapestry's Mary Hynes. 

Can you give me an example of something you might have encountered in Lovecraft's work that you were also encountering in your work as an astronomy student, a student of physics?

One of my favourite stories that I read as an undergrad while I was taking cosmology was a story called Dreams in the Witch House. The main character was a physics undergraduate, just like me. He was also interested in things like folklore and mythology, like I was as a child — but he wanted to study physics in these stories. 

Eventually, this character meets a witch when he moves into this old Puritan-era home that he was renting a room from while in college. And this witch starts appearing after there are some very weird space-time distortions in his attic room. Lovecraft even explicitly mentions non-Euclidean geometry, which sounds scary, but was actually something we were learning about in my classes.

One of the themes of cosmic horror is the fear of scientific progress and the fear of the unknown. And there's so much in the universe that is unknown. I actually think that's more exciting than horrifying.- Leo Alcorn

I think of this genre as more of a way to interpret and work through these astronomical concepts. Cosmicism is the philosophy that Lovecraft sort of comes up with when writing cosmic horror or Lovecraftian horror — the idea that the universe is this vast, indifferent place and we are sort of subject to it. This literary genre draws horror from that idea, and that kind of sounds like my work every day. 

When you're dealing with these huge numbers and everything being so unclear in your field of research, there are a few ways to come to terms with sort of this existential dread you can get. One of the themes of cosmic horror is the fear of scientific progress and the fear of the unknown. And there's so much in the universe that is unknown. I actually think that's more exciting than horrifying. 

I'm dealing with phenomena like dark matter. We don't even understand what dark matter is, really. When you don't have the answer in the back of a book, it can cause a lot of anxiety and stress. And additionally, the universe is looking very different from what our initial hypotheses were in science. 

Leo Alcorn visiting the Keck Observatory, which is on a dormant volcano, Maunakea, in Hawaii. (Submitted by Leo Alcorn)

So in a way, I would say the original Lovecraftian horror views this universe in a very fearful, rigid way. There is this idea that humans should be the most important force in the cosmos. We should be able to manipulate the cosmos according to our own desires.

But we haven't found any evidence of that. So you can either be scared of that, or you can learn to embrace it and be curious about it. Which is something that I found has helped my science to really blossom.

For people who aren't familiar with cosmic horror, there tends to be this underlying message, as you mentioned, that human beings don't really matter. We are insignificant. There is certainly no compassionate force in the universe that cares about us. 

You study galaxy clusters, which are these things in space that are so huge they're almost impossible to comprehend. Does it ever feel like too much? Like this cluster, this form is just so ancient and too big for me to comprehend?

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Oh, my God. So when you're dealing with things that are this huge — so, for example, I am doing a study right now of a galaxy cluster called Abell 2390. I recommend everybody look it up. It's a beautiful image. This galaxy cluster is at redshift around 0.25. That means that this light was released around 3 billion years ago. That is older than humanity. That is older than the dinosaurs. This is also something that is utterly alien to us in the Milky Way. 

In the Milky Way, we are actually in a rather isolated area of the universe. When we look into something, say, a galaxy cluster, I'm dealing with something that's so utterly alien to me. And my day mostly consists of doing math on images of these things. And I mean, it's one thing to do the math, but when, when you're actually in graduate school and doing the research, you also have to draw conclusions about what you're looking at. And that wider cosmic perspective can definitely be a little bit overwhelming.

I watched a YouTube talk you gave. First astronomer I've ever seen brandishing a green plush monster: the dreaded Cthulhu, the Lovecraftian monster. And you said, "Here's what I want you to think about when you encounter these stories of cosmic horror, and when you think about the universe: Embrace the void. Love what you don't understand." And you know, I struggle with this. The idea of an unimaginable void and of an uncaring, unfathomable universe — it just makes me feel kind of queasy.

Yeah, but the thing about science in the universe is that, well, we're studying these agreed-upon truths. We're trying to study an objective reality. And that is very difficult when we don't have all the sensory information that we need for this. Senses can be very unreliable. And this also sort of corresponds with the Lovecraftian idea that we're just not equipped to understand the nature of the universe. But we're making sort of pokes in the dark at this. 

So when you look at that void, you can either let it break you, like it does with Lovecraftian protagonists — these academics who have an idea about mankind's importance and our ability to measure anything. Or you can learn how to really look at this phenomena as honestly as you can. Yes, it'll be confusing, and you may not understand it at first, but if we all look at it and we all honestly report what we see, that tells us something about the nature of reality. 

I don't see a reason to despair over this. I mean, we may not be able to manipulate the universe, but it can give you a sense of perspective that I think is necessary in this day and age. We actually have an enormous amount of power over our planet, but we're not the only living things on this planet. We're not the most important animals on this planet. We're not the most numerous animals on this planet. It could serve us to have a little bit of humility about our place in the universe. We can do amazing things, but we're still just a part of it.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Produced by Arman Aghbali. Written by Rosie Fernandez.

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