By Emily Eakin - New York Times - November 2, 2002
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."
Unlike, say, Leonardo da Vinci's sketches of "flying machines" or Jules Verne's descriptions of submarines and televisions decades before such objects were ever made, scientific prediscoveries, as Mr. Siegfried defines them, are not human inventions awaiting technological realization, but rather insights into the nature of reality.
"Eureka" may be Mr. Siegfried's most striking example, a literary mind hitting the cosmological jackpot. But his list of bona fide prediscoveries includes an impressive number of contemporary physics' most basic concepts: antimatter, electromagnetic waves, neutron stars, neutrinos, quarks and atoms.
In the 1860's the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell inferred the existence of invisible radiation from a mathematical analysis of electricity and magnetism. (Nine years after his death, Maxwell was proved right when the radio waves were discovered by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz.)
In 1931 the English physicist Paul Dirac came up with a more preposterous-sounding notion: antimatter. From the mathematical equations of other physicists, Dirac concluded that electrons, one of the observed building blocks of atoms, must have identical but oppositely charged twins. The following year Carl Anderson, an American physicist, identified a positively charged electron, or positron, the first antiparticle.
And around the same time, the Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli prediscovered the neutrino: a neutral particle so light and undetectable that it could pass through a lead wall trillions of miles thick without a trace.
Given the number of successful prediscoveries in the past, Mr. Siegfried argues, some of the wacky ideas floating around in astrophysics today are bound to be validated sooner or later. That turns out to be an alarming proposition: Mr. Siegfried's book is filled with enough mysterious hypothetical entities — some of which, under the right circumstances could snuff out the earth in a nanosecond — to sustain a dozen Hollywood thrillers.
Which object will turn out to be real? Cosmic Q-balls ("lumps of super matter that may have formed when tiny superparticles coagulated in the hot dense phase of the early universe")? Wimpzillas (particles "heavier than a million billion ordinary subatomic particles")? Or quark nuggets (a four-ton object less than one twenty-fifth of an inch long that could "shoot through Earth like a bullet through butter")?
Any of these concepts might help solve the mystery of "dark matter," the unidentified stuff that astronomers believe makes up 90 percent or more of an average galaxy's mass. Personally, Mr. Siegfried said, he's betting on WIMP's — that's short for weakly interacting massive particles — thought to be heavy, generally unstable particles that hover in the outer regions of galaxies and rarely interact with ordinary matter.
As extravagant as some of these potential prediscoveries sound, the astronomers behind them have a substantial leg up on Poe. They're working within a scientific world, using the latest technology, trading information and comparing notes. And yet Mr. Siegfried raises the tantalizing possibility that valuable scientific ideas may lie outside science, awaiting a mathematical mind to seize on them: Alexander Friedmann, the man credited with inferring the expansion of the universe from Einstein's theory, he notes, loved Poe.
Did Friedmann read "Eureka?" No one seems to know. Nevertheless, Mr. Siegfried speculates, it's quite possible "that Friedmann was conditioned by Poe's imagination to see the true meaning of Einstein's equations, whereas others, Einstein included, did not."
As for Poe, he never doubted that his ideas would eventually get their due. "What I have propounded will (in good time) revolutionize the world of Physical & Metaphysical Science," he wrote to a friend in 1848. "I say this calmly — but I say it."
Last updated 07/02/2003