Edgar Allan Poe or Albert Einstein: Who was the greatest thinker of all time?

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.

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Here is the translation:
13 December 1933.
Dear Sir,
I will gladly read the story by the master and tell you in all modesty what I think about it. I am sorry that I cannot come to dinner, but I am happy that America does not forget its creative sons.
A. Einstein.
(Image photographed by Aundeah Kearney)

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.

Einstein 7 January 1934-a  (web)
Here is the translation:
7 January 1934.
Dear Sir,
I have partly studied ‘Eureka’ but I have no hope to be able to finish this study in the near future. The imaginary letter of a future thinker, at the beginning of the work, in which the two major principles of the modern philosophy of science are critically reviewed, is in my opinion a very beautiful achievement of an extraordinary independent mind. The attempt of a complete cosmogony, which makes up the remaining part of the work, is a shining example that even such a free mind remains bound to its era, no matter how free it may feel itself of the prejudices of that time.
For an appreciation of the artistic value of this work, I cannot find the courage in the coming time, in spite of the attraction that comes from his wonderful man.
Most sincerely,
A. Einstein.
(Image photographed by Aundeah Kearney)

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.

Einstein suddenly denies have read Eureka before, and suddenly is very negative and hostile. (Quinn Collection at the Library of U Penn and provided by librarian  Nancy Shawcross)
Einstein suddenly denies having read Eureka before, and suddenly is very negative and hostile.
(Quinn Collection at the Library of U Penn and provided by librarian Nancy Shawcross)










2 thoughts on “Edgar Allan Poe or Albert Einstein: Who was the greatest thinker of all time?

  • René van Slooten
    August 7, 2014 at 6:44 PM

    Comment by the author René van Slooten.
    It is interesting to note, that in ‘Eureka’ Poe clearly says that the gravity effect acts with infinite speed, while Albert Einstein stated that also gravity cannot go faster than the speed of light. However, quantum physics has shown that there are indeed processes between fundamental particles that act with infinite speed over large distances (the so-called ‘entanglement’ of paired particles). If gravity should belong to this category of not yet understood phenomena, it could give an explanation of the mysterious ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’. Our universe is larger than what we observe, because it has an ‘outer shell’ of which the normal physical signals (light, X-rays etc) have not reached us yet, since they travel at ‘only’ the velocity of light. But the gravity of all that invisible ‘dark’ matter does have an attractive, ‘pulling’ effect on the visible universe, causing an apparent increase in the rate of expansion (the ‘dark’ energy’).

  • December 29, 2013 at 4:57 PM

    I always enjoy reading your analyses of “Eureka,” Rene. Many thanks!

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