What Did Poe Know About Cosmology? Nothing. But He Was Right.
In 1848, by then a nationally celebrated poet, Edgar Allan Poe published ”Eureka,” a 150-page prose poem on the nature and origin of the universe. The work, an overheated grab bag of metaphysics and cosmology, was a flop. A reviewer for Literary World likened it to ”arrant fudge.” A hundred years later T. S. Eliot summed up the critical consensus. ”Eureka,” he wrote, ”makes no deep impression … because we are aware of Poe’s lack of qualification in philosophy, theology or natural science.”
Of course, Eliot had a point: ”Eureka” was the work of an amateur, a backyard stargazer who read astronomy books in his spare time.
But Eliot — himself no scientist — was underestimating his fellow poet. Eighty years before 20th-century cosmologists hammered out the math, Poe, it turns out, came up with a rudimentary version of contemporary science’s best guess for explaining how the universe began.
Departing from conventional wisdom of the day, which saw the universe as static and eternal, Poe insisted that it had exploded into being from a single ”primordial particle” in ”one instantaneous flash.”
”From the one particle, as a center,” he wrote, ”let us suppose to be irradiated spherically — in all directions — to immeasurable but still to definite distances in the previously vacant space — a certain inexpressibly great yet limited number of unimaginably yet not infinitely minute atoms.”
The language is vague and convoluted, and some details are wrong (Poe had no concept of relativity, and it makes no sense today to speak of the universe exploding into ”previously vacant space”), but here, unmistakably, is a crude description of the Big Bang, a theory that didn’t find mainstream approval until the 1960’s.
This wasn’t Poe’s only uncanny display of prescience. He also came up with the idea that the universe was expanding (and might eventually collapse), a notion that the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann ferreted out of Einstein’s equations in 1922. Einstein initially pooh-poohed the idea, and it wasn’t widely accepted until the 1930’s, after Edwin Hubble gleaned some hard data from the velocities of far-flung galaxies.
Black holes? Poe envisioned something like those, too. And he was the first person on record to solve the Olbers Paradox, which had dogged astronomers since Kepler: the mystery of why the sky is dark at night. If the universe was infinite, as 19th-century astronomers believed, there should be an infinite number of stars as well, plenty, in other words, to illuminate the sky at all times. Poe understood why this in fact was not the case: the universe is finite in time and space (and light from some stars has not yet reached the Milky Way).
So what accounts for Poe’s prophetic genius? Tom Siegfried, the science editor of The Dallas Morning News, doesn’t explain just how the poet derived his cosmological theory, but in his new book, ”Strange Matters: Undiscovered Ideas at the Frontiers of Space and Time” (Joseph Henry Press), he argues that the history of astrophysics is littered with such ”prediscoveries,” or ”instances of theoretical anticipation.”
”There are lots of things theorists predict on the basis of what’s known and what’s already been found,” Mr. Siegfried explained in a telephone interview. ”The distinction with prediscovery is that theorists discover the existence of something observers have never seen. It’s one thing to figure out an explanation for the observation. It’s another thing altogether to suggest something exists that no one had any idea about beforehand.”
Illustration: Harry Clarke for Edgar Allen Poe via this post by kateopolis