In 1848 the American writer Edgar Allan Poe published a cosmogony “Eureka: An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe.” It was his answer to philosophical questions that had haunted him for a long time, because he disagreed with the determined, ‘mechanistic’ world-view that had arisen from the celestial mechanics of Newton.
Poe detested this so-called ‘clockwork universe’, which he saw as a prison that leaves no physical and spiritual freedom whatsoever. His clearest description of this horrible ‘condition humaine’ is the story ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’However, this radical rejection of the scientific opinion of his time, meant that Poe had to invent an entirely new universe in which gravity is not the fundamental and all-dominant force of nature from Newton’s laws, but which nevertheless explained all known phenomena.
It is astounding how this basic idea – gravity cannot be a fundamental force of nature – challenged and inspired Poe to construct a surprisingly modern cosmogony. ‘Eureka’ contains more than twenty ideas and concepts that were revolutionary in 1848, but that are now part of everyday science, like a ‘Big Bang’, an expanding universe, the unity of space and time, the velocity of light as the speed limit for electro-magnetic phenomena, the equivalence of matter and energy, and black holes as the final phase of stars and milky ways. It is also remarkable that in ‘Eureka’ Poe dared to write about the principles of evolution, in which he attributed an important role to geologic and cosmic catastrophes.
In the USA ‘Eureka’ received harsh criticism, it was hardly sold and it never got the attention that it deserves. However, in Europe things went differently. In 1859 the poet Charles Baudelaire published a French translation of ‘Eureka’ in the ‘Revue International’ that was read all over Europe. And because in Europe Poe was considered a brilliant and prophetic poet and writer, also ‘Eureka’ was taken seriously as a visionary piece. So seriously, in fact, that in 1871 it was officially forbidden in Russia.
But due to Poe’s popularity and profound influence in Europe during the period 1860-1930, it is not strange that his ideas inspired others to develop a new ideas about the universe, like the Russian physicist Alexander Friedmann (1888-1925) who in 1922 proposed the ‘dynamic’ universe, and the Belgian physicist Georges Lemaître (1894-1966) who in 1927 developed the theory of the ‘Big Bang’.
The ‘Free Library of Philadelphia’ and the ‘University of Pennsylvania’ own four letters that prove that also Albert Einstein read ‘Eureka’ twice. In 1933, when he had just moved to the USA and his English was still weak, he mainly read the first part that contains Poe’s philosophical vision on science and logic.
In two letters, written in German to the American Poe collector Richard Gimbel (Philadelphia), Einstein called this first part “eine sehr schöne Leistung eines ungewöhnlich selbständigen Geistes” (‘a very beautiful achievement of an extraordinary independent mind’). He also called Poe ‘a master’, ‘a wonderful man’ and ‘a creative son of America’.
In 1940 Einstein read ‘Eureka’ completely and thoroughly, at the request of the Poe-biographer Arthur Quinn (University of Pennsylvania). The two letters from Einstein to Quinn are written in English, but they show a radical change in opinion. Einstein suddenly and strongly denied having read ‘Eureka’ before and his critique was slashing. He even went so far as calling Poe “‘a pathological personality.” His last letter to Quinn expressed only deep feelings of aversion and hostility towards Poe and ‘Eureka’. What ever possessed Einstein to do that?
There cannot be any doubt that in 1940 Einstein also discovered the brilliant scientific ideas of Poe, which must have come as an intense shock. Because these were not only ideas that anticipated his own theories about the velocity of light, space-time and matter-energy, but also ideas that he had opposed strongly for many years, like the dynamic universe and the ‘Big Bang’. Reading ‘Eureka’ probably also unpleasantly reminded Einstein of his clashes with Friedmann and Lemaître, to whom he had to give in eventually.
But worst of all was that Einstein must have understood that Poe had developed a revolutionary theory of ‘non-fundamental’ gravity, that falsified the general theory of relativity, in which gravity is a fundamental property of space-time.
In 1940 Einstein could have decided to investigate Poe’s gravity idea further and develop the associated mathematics, which would have made a revolutionary contribution to science. But unfortunately he choose to bring down and reject Poe and ‘Eureka’ in a hideous way; perhaps understandable from a personal viewpoint but nevertheless deeply regrettable. It also meant that Poe never got the recognition that he so richly deserves – to be one of the greatest thinkers of all time.