Edgar Allan Poe: Master of the Universe

The past year two new books have appeared that both place Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) in the frontline of western science and philosophy. Is this, finally, the academic recognition of one of the world’s most original thinkers and his magnum opus, the cosmogony ‘Eureka’ (1848)?

The first book ‘Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Eureka’, and scientific imagination’ is written by David N. Stamos (Professor of Philosophy, York University, Canada). The second book ‘Poe’s ‘Eureka’, Erasmus Darwin, and discourses of Radical Science in Britain and America, 1770-1850’, is written by Robert J. Scholnick (Professor of English and American Studies, College of William and Mary, USA).

With almost 600 pages, the book by David Stamos is the most voluminous of the two, because it gives a comprehensive and sometimes humoristic survey of the development of western science and philosophy, with special emphasis on Poe’s place in that development and his contributions to science. As the title suggests, Poe’s brilliant cosmogony ‘Eureka’ is the main subject of the book, although Stamos takes the reader on excursions to Poe’s many other tales and poems in which science has a certain importance. After all, Poe was one of the founders of science fiction and the inventor of the detective story.

The book convincingly shows that Poe’s ‘Eureka’ already proposed nine ideas and theories that were revolutionary and unheard-of in 1848, but which are essential principles and building blocks of modern science: the rejection of axioms as intuitively true; Big Bang cosmology (with all its implications of a dynamic and evolving universe); the fine-tuning of the laws of nature; the nonexistence of the laws of nature before the Big Bang; the correct solution of ‘Olbers’ Paradox’ (why is the sky dark at night, when there is an unlimited number of stars?); multiverse theory (other universes in time and space); space-time continuity; matter-energy equivalence, and, finally, the rejection of the existence of a material ‘ether’.

To these nine principles and theories, I would like to add a tenth one: supersymmetry, which is the most important guiding principle in modern theoretical particle physics. However, In ‘Eureka’ Poe already wrote that symmetry is the poetical essence of the universe, an instinct which may be depended upon with almost blindfold reliance; exactly what modern physicists are doing!

One cannot help but wonder if there are direct connections between Poe’s ideas and modern science. Or did modern scientists develop these major principles and theories entirely by themselves, completely ignorant of Poe’s revolutionary work? The answer is that Poe did indeed influence and inspire scientists in Europe, during the period 1870-1940, when his work was incredibly influential there. Names that come to mind immediately are Emmy Noether (supersymmetry, 1919); Alexander Friedmann (dynamic universe, 1922) and Georges Lemâitre (Big Bang theory, 1927). Great artiste and scientists have always been aware of the extended and interwoven traditions of art and science, and it is a fact that these three groundbreaking European scientists had a profound interest in literature and poetry, and certainly knew Poe’s work well.

The book by Robert Scholnick, about Erasmus Darwin, Poe’s Eureka, and the advent of radical science in England and America, has 115 pages, but these are certainly worth reading, because they deal with probably the most important revolution in scientific thought: the idea of evolution, not only of species but of the universe in general.

Statue of Poe by Sir Moses Ezekiel in Baltimore.

I knew that Eureka describes a highly dynamic and evolving universe and that in one or two paragraphs Poe mentions the evolution of species, and even speculates on the advent of a superior human species. But Robert Scholnick discloses an entire and surprising world of thought behind Poe’s work. It is fascinating to read how such ideas originated in England, developed by brilliant and visionary men like Erasmus Darwin (1733-1802; the grandfather of Charles Darwin), the philosopher Robert Chambers (1802-1871) and the naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859).

It is important to note that Darwin, Chambers, Von Humboldt, and Poe were evolutionists; they all sought to reach a readership of non-specialists; and all wrote about cosmic origins. However, Erasmus Darwin, Chambers, and Von Humboldt were primarily concerned -as would be Charles Darwin, many years later- with evolution on this earth. They did not, as did Poe, envisage cosmic expansion and evolution, finally leading to cosmic collapse, followed by the creation and expansion of an entirely new universe. In Poe’s Eureka, the evolution of life on earth is but one of many aspects of cosmic development and everything that comes with it.

One specific mark of Poe’s scientific and cultural originality is his ‘cyclic’ world view, which envisions the creation, flourishing and eventual collapse of everything. The ‘general proposition’ at the very beginning of Eureka says: “In the Original Unity of the First Thing lies the Secondary Cause of All Things, with the Germ of their Inevitable Annihilation”. This doomsday view is dominant in most of Poe’s work, remarkably so in his prediction that the USA as he knew it, would self-destruct in a bloody internal conflict over slavery; which is the basic plot in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and ‘The Black Cat’.

These two new books show convincingly that Poe was standing on the shoulders of giants. But what made him so great and unique, was his ability to draw from a radical scientific tradition, which enabled him to step outside religious, cultural and scientific orthodoxy in all of his work, including Eureka. We must, thus, see and read this cosmology as a culmination of Poe’s work and as an important articulation in antebellum America of a hitherto neglected tradition of materialist science going back to the Greeks and Lucretius.

And to me, as a reviewer, these two books by Stamos and Scholnick, prove once more that Poe was indeed a key-figure in the history of western thought. At least ten of his ideas and theories are now indispensable tenets of modern astronomy and theoretical physics. They may mistakenly be attributed to others, but those who know the truth will not be fooled and recognize Poe’s undeniable hand in the Universe as we see it today.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  The author is a Poe scholar and member of the Poe Studies Association, but he had no prior knowledge of the books by professor Stamos and professor Scholnick, nor did he contribute to these publications.