The cosmogony Eureka, which Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) published the year before his death, anticipates modern science and cosmology.1 It describes a process that is now popularly known as the ‘Big Bang’ and the expanding universe. But it also contains ideas about the unity of space and time, the mathematical equality of matter and energy, the velocity of light and a rudimentary concept of relativity, black holes (including one at the center of our Milky Way), a "pulsating" universe that renews itself eternally, and other universes in other dimensions with different laws of nature.
Contrary to the 19th century belief in a static and clockwork universe, Eureka describes a dynamic universe that is continually evolving, including evolution and succession of species on earth, even the human one. 2 Poe saw Eureka as the completion of his oeuvre. But it was immediately attacked and harshly criticized, and after the initial edition of only 500 copies, it was not reprinted for more than a century. Until the end of the 20th century it was Poe’s most ignored work in the USA.
But in Europe things went differently. The French translations of Poe’s work by the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), made Poe incredibly popular and influential. Eureka was published in 1859 in a French/Swiss international cultural magazine, so it got a flying start and it was regarded as a visionary masterpiece by one of the greatest minds ever. In 1871 it was even officially forbidden in czarist Russia because of the revolutionary contents, although Poe’s other work was admired and influential there.3
This means that from 1860 onwards the concepts of a Big Bang and an evolving and open universe were common knowledge in Europe. It would only be a matter of time till these ideas were picked up by scientists. This happened during the "Roaring Twenties," when physics and astronomy were completely revised, due to the General Theory of Relativity and the advent of quantum physics.
The first who used Poe’s ideas was the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann (1888-1925), who was a fan of Poe. In 1922 he published the mathematics for a dynamic universe, as an alternative for Einstein’s “cosmological constant.”4 The second one was the Belgian astronomer and priest Georges Lemaître (1894-1966), who suggested the Big Bang in 1927. 5 Poe’s ideas were clearly behind these scientific breakthroughs, but he never received the credits.
Most Poe biographers and scholars were at odds over Eureka. Some considered it humbug that was not worth reading; it even helped to convince Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein that Poe had a pathological personality.6 But others had a positive opinion, like the American Poet Laureate Daniel Hoffman (1923-2013), who saw it as a masterpiece and the key to Poe’s oeuvre7
Fortunately, Eureka is now gradually receiving more and more serious attention as a major step in our understanding of the universe.8
So what is the deeper meaning of Eureka? And why did Poe write it, although he foresaw that it would be "trodden down," as he wrote in the introduction?
The existential consequences of the scientific view of the universe, posed a serious problem for Poe. This "clockwork universe" was ruled by the laws of nature, with the law of gravity as the most important one. This concept of absolute determinism gradually invaded human thought, where it left no room for a free will, self-determination and responsibility
Such a miserable and powerless human condition was unacceptable to Poe. So clocks and pendulums (a symbol for both time and gravity) became metaphors for loss of freedom, death, destruction and despair in tales like The Pit and the Pendulum; The Masque of the Red Death; A Predicament; The Devil in the Belfry and Hop Frog.
In order to escape from this philosophical death trap, Poe had to deconstruct the existing scientific ideas about the universe, and design a completely new one. And that is what Eureka does: it is a radical attack on science, which is followed by the construction of an alternative universe that is fit for humans to live in.9
Eureka opens with a deriding summary of western thought, but seen in retrospect from the year 2848. The real message is that rational thought and the scientific method of deduction and induction are not sufficient to understand the deeper reality of nature. That requires another human faculty, the "intuition."As an example Poe mentioned the astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) who "imagined" the cosmic laws, who "grasped these laws with his soul," who could understand the machinery of the universe "through mere dint of intuition." And, following the British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Poe rejected the notion of axioms. or self-evident truths. because these only indicate the limitations in our imagination. It is remarkable that he mentions Euclid’s fifth axiom, that two straight lines cannot enclose a space, as such a fake axiom, because that idea would later lead to the development of hyper-dimensional non-Euclidean geometry.
The first part of Eureka anticipated later philosophers of science, like Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend.10 But Poe clearly meant it to undo the certainties in his readers minds, to open them to a new world.
In order to abandon the celestial mechanics of his time, Poe needed a radically different gravitation, which could not be a fundamental force of nature. 11
So he reduced gravitation into a temporary effect that only acts as long as matter is radiated and diffused into space. Once matter returns to the original unity, gravity will immediately cease to exist. Further gravity is not a force by itself, but an effect that is generated by a deeper and immediate interaction between fundamental particles, the "sympathy," which creates an immaterial field throughout the universe. So the effect of gravitation acts instantaneous, regardless of distance.12
But Eureka also states that electromagnetic phenomena can never exceed the velocity of light, which creates a dichotomy in the universe: the gravitational effects of celestial bodies are observable, long before their light reaches us! This dichotomy gives an elegant and simple explanation of dark matter and dark energy, which are the gravitational effects of matter that is not yet visible, because its electromagnetic information has not yet reached us. If Poe is right, the universe is larger and older than we think now. Our visible universe is then surrounded by a still invisible outer shell with millions or even billions of galaxies whose gravitation is attracting the interior in all directions, thereby causing a local acceleration of the expansion.
Could Edgar Allan Poe be right? For 160 years Eureka has not only stealthily contributed to science, but it has also easily admitted new ideas and explained unanswered questions. It is certainly one of the most prolific and intriguing documents in world literature.
2 The evolution in Eureka is a gradual ‘vitalic’ development to ever higher forms of life, in combination with the sudden extinction of old species and the advent of new ones, due to cosmic and geologic catastrophes.
3 See http://www.eapoe.org/pstudies/ps1970/p1975111.htm and The reception of Eureka in Russia; Elvira Osipova (University of St. Petersburg), The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Volume V. Nr. 1, Spring 2004 (The Pennsylvania State University)
5 See Poe in Belgium in Poe Abroad; University of Iowa Press, 1999. And Poe and the Belgian Aesthetic Movement in Poe Studies, Dark Romanticism, Volume 33, Nrs. 1&2, Washington State University, 2001.
6 In 1933 Princess Marie Bonaparte wrote a psychoanalytical biography of Poe. In the foreword Sigmund Freud diagnosed Poe as a pathological case. This biography did severely damage Poe’s reputation in Europe and the USA. However, it is clear that Bonaparte and Freud had no idea what Poe’s intentions were with Eureka and several of his best known tales.
Albert Einstein read Eureka twice, in 1933 and 1940. The four letters that he wrote about it show a complete change of opinion, from admiration to hostility. Did he feel threatened by Poe’s brilliant ideas? See http://baltimorepostexaminer.com/edgar-allan-poe-albert-einstein-greatest-thinker-time/2013/12/28#sthash.GBarzFXM.dpbs
7 Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, by Daniel Hoffman, 335 pages, 1972. ISBN 0-807-2321-8
8 In 1987 the American astronomer Edward Harrison credited Poe with the solution of the ‘Olbers Paradox’ in his book Darkness at Night: A Riddle of the Universe; Harvard UP, ISBN 978-0674192713
In 1994 the Italian astronomer Alberto Cappi wrote an appreciative article Poe’s Physical Cosmology in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, see http://www.bo.astro.it/~cappi/poe.html In 1995 the American astronomer Timothy Ferris was remarkably positive about Eureka in an article in The New Yorker, see http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1995/05/15/minds-and-matter
At the First International Poe Conference (Richmond, VA, 1999) one paper on Eureka was presented. At the second international conference (Baltimore, 2002), there were two Eureka presentations. At the third international conference (Philadelphia, 2009) there was one. The ‘Positively Poe’ conference (University of Virginia, 2013) had four papers on Eureka. And the fourth international Poe conference (NY City, 2015) had two sessions on Eureka with eight presentations. In 2008 the ‘Poe Society of Japan’ organized a special conference on Eureka, together with four universities.
The website www.poe-eureka.com collects all available information on Eureka.
11 That gravity is not a fundamental force of nature, has also been suggested in theoretical physics, see http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/13/science/13gravity.html In 2012 the physicist Erik Verlinde (University of Amsterdam) also suggested that gravity acts instantaneous.
12 That the recently discovered ‘gravity waves’ have the velocity of light, does not impede that the gravity effect acts instantaneous. Gravity waves are vibrations of the time-space fabric itself, but the gravity effect acts inside that fabric. An analogy can be found in water: pressure waves inside water go hundreds of times faster than ripples on its surface.