The cosmology of Poe

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Drawing on intuition, Edgar Allan Poe offered some remarkably prescient ideas about the universe in his poem ‘Eureka’

Paul Halpern is professor of physics at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. A prolific science writer, his latest book is The Quantum Labyrinth: How Richard Feynman and John Wheeler Revolutionized Time and Reality(forthcoming, 2017). He lives near Philadelphia, PA.

Looking about me upon the wide waste of liquid ebony on which we were thus borne … I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company. I must have been delirious – for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below.

‘A Descent into the Maelström’ (1841), Edgar Allan Poe

Nature’s power enthralled the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, and galvanised some of his most memorable works. He was particularly captivated by the natural world’s ghastly capacity for destruction. In the short story ‘A Descent into the Maelström’, for instance, a sea voyage turns into sheer mayhem when a fierce vortex hurls the vessel toward its briny doom, shattering it into splinters. As if he were a journalist reporting a maritime calamity, Poe describes each stage of the devastation in riveting detail. His amateur interest in science lends his tales a measure of credibility that makes them all the more horrific. 

Despite his relatively brief life, from 1809 to 1849, Poe applied his style to an astounding range of genres, from supernatural horror to detective stories. Even among that diversity, though, one piece stands out. In his final major work, Eureka – A Prose Poem (1848), he took his fascination with nature beyond the human world and crafted a chronicle of the Universe itself. The unique subject matter required an inversion of his usual approach. Instead of imagining a breaking down of regularity into shards, as in many of his famous short stories, Poe envisioned a systematic building up of order from a unitary beginning – a genesis rather than an apocalypse. Moreover, he offered his account as an attempt at realistic truth rather than mere fiction. ‘My general proposition … is this,’ he wrote. ‘In the Original Unity of the First Thing lies the Secondary Cause of All Things, with the Germ of their Inevitable Annihilation.’

Readers who first encounter Eureka are often surprised by its resemblance to the Big Bang model of cosmology, pioneered by the Belgian physicist and cleric Georges Lemaître in the 1920s, and later developed by the Russian-born cosmologist George Gamow and others. In the Big Bang narrative, the Universe started as a kind of dense, unitary ‘primeval atom’ (Lemaître’s term) that diversified as it expanded. The narrative of Eureka is similar enough that, taking it out of context, Poe seems uncannily prescient, almost a prophet of modern cosmology. Even though he had no access to the later theoretical insights and experimental evidence upon which the Big Bang is based, one might trace a narrative thread connecting Eureka’s ethereal speculations with the more solid scientific theory.

Poe identified a vital cosmos, pulsing with change, as dynamic as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and indeed maelströms. The Universe, painted with Poe’s vivid colours, became not just a backdrop to nature’s theatrics but a dramatis persona in its own right, much like the seven chambers in another of Poe’s stories, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842), or the turbulent sea in ‘A Descent’. In bringing the cosmos to life, Poe mirrored the embrace of natural transformation in many of the writings of the Transcendentalists around this time, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson in his lecture ‘The Method of Nature’ (1841), which advised: ‘If anything could stand still, it would be crushed and dissipated by the torrent it resisted.’ In a similar vein, Walt Whitman’s poem ‘A Song of the Open Road’ (1856) speaks of ‘wild seas… where winds blow, waves dash’.

Science today has embraced a dynamic Universe that alters from aeon to aeon (or even from second to second), but in the mid-19th century that view was rather radical. By then, Isaac Newton’s mechanistic laws of motion were well-established. At face value, they seemed to suggest a timeless Universe driven by deterministic rules to persist indefinitely. Running those laws backward into the past implied that the clockwork Universe would have always ticked, eliminating the need for Genesis. Eschewing Biblical teachings of a divine creation completely had proven too bold a step for Newton to take, however.

Lacking an obvious starting point, Newton had felt the need to insert one deus ex machina. In a letter to the English theologian Thomas Burnet, Newton envisioned how the early Universe was constructed:

One may suppose that all the planets about our sun were created together… That they all, and the sun too, had, at first, one common chaos. That this chaos, by the spirit of God moving upon it, became separated into several parcels, each parcel for a planet. That at the same time the matter of the sun also separated from the rest, and upon the separation began to shine before it was formed into that compact and well-defined body we now see it.

Newton had little reason to doubt the Biblical timeline that Earth and the cosmos were thousands of years old. In his day, fossil evidence for a distant past was just starting to be examined, and geological dating and astronomical observation had not yet revealed the true multi-billion-year timeline. The Irish archbishop James Ussher’s infamous 1654 proclamation that the Universe began on 22 October 4004 BCE was emblematic of the widespread misconceptions about a young Earth…

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https://aeon.co/essays/edgar-allan-poe-visionary-of-big-bang-cosmology

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