Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Poe foresaw the Big Bang in 1848

The current NY Review of Books has an article on Edgar Allan Poe:
Poe’s mind was by no means commonplace. In the last year of his life he wrote a prose poem, Eureka, which would have established this fact beyond doubt—if it had not been so full of intuitive insight that neither his contemporaries nor subsequent generations, at least until the late twentieth century, could make any sense of it. Its very brilliance made it an object of ridicule, an instance of affectation and delusion, and so it is regarded to this day among readers and critics who are not at all abreast of contemporary physics. Eureka describes the origins of the universe in a single particle, from which “radiated” the atoms of which all matter is made. Minute dissimilarities of size and distribution among these atoms meant that the effects of gravity caused them to accumulate as matter, forming the physical universe.

This by itself would be a startling anticipation of modern cosmology, if Poe had not also drawn striking conclusions from it, for example that space and “duration” are one thing, that there might be stars that emit no light, that there is a repulsive force that in some degree counteracts the force of gravity, that there could be any number of universes with different laws simultaneous with ours, that our universe might collapse to its original state and another universe erupt from the particle it would have become, that our present universe may be one in a series.

All this is perfectly sound as observation, hypothesis, or speculation by the lights of science in the twenty-first century. And of course Poe had neither evidence nor authority for any of it. It was the product, he said, of a kind of aesthetic reasoning—therefore, he insisted, a poem. He was absolutely sincere about the truth of the account he had made of cosmic origins, and he was ridiculed for his sincerity. Eureka is important because it indicates the scale and the seriousness of Poe’s thinking, and its remarkable integrity. It demonstrates his use of his aesthetic sense as a particularly rigorous method of inquiry.
The book was written in 1848. Just glancing at it, it looks like nonsense to me, but I did not read enuf to judge.

SciAm's John Horgan is also excited by Poe's book, and says it reminds him of a drug trip.
It’s like a 19th-century version of the many manuscripts I have received over the decades from brilliant but deranged autodidacts who have solved the secrets of the universe. Imagine what you might get if you toss Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Newton’s Principia in a blender along with scoops of gothic rhetoric and romantic philosophy. Eureka does indeed evoke some modern scientific ideas, but in the same blurry way that Christian or Eastern theologies do.

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