This text is a written version of my presentation at the international ‘Positively Poe’
conference, held from 22-26 June 2013 at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, USA.
Ladies and gentlemen.
Dear Poe Friends.
For those of you who did not hear my ‘Eureka’ lectures at the Poe conferences in Baltimore (2002) and Philadelphia (2009), I must introduce myself, because I am not the average literary Poe scholar. I am a chemical engineer, but more important is that my father was a mathematician and a scientist at the Philips Physics Laboratory, with a profound interest in astronomy.[i] He often did experiments at home where I helped him, and we observed the skies at night, so I grew up with stories about the history of mathematics and the sciences of nature, and the great names therein. Since then the history of science always remained a favorite subject to me.
So I was well prepared when an old edition of ‘Eureka’ (London 1899, edited by John Ingram) came into my hands in 1982. I had never heard of it, although I thought that I knew Poe’s work, but I know now that these were only the stories that everyone knows, which are maybe 10-15% of Poe’s work.
But when I started to read ‘Eureka’ I fell from one amazement into the next, because I read many scientific ideas and concepts that did not exist in 1848 when Poe published this masterwork. How was that possible? This question lead to a quest of which the end is still nowhere in sight.
The first part of this lecture is about the influence of ‘Eureka’ on science and philosophy. The second part concerns the four letters Albert Einstein wrote about it, because in my opinion these letters throw an astonishing new light, not only on Poe and the history of science, but also on the immediate scientific future.
The history and contents of ‘Eureka’
For those who have not read it yet: ‘Eureka’ is a cosmogony; a complete description of our universe, of its birth and its history, and of everything in it, material and spiritual. A remarkable thing is that ‘Eureka’ is usually ignored by literary scholars, but that during the past 20-30 years it is gaining ever more respect among scientists who (re)discover it.
It is important to know that the history of ‘Eureka’ was and is very different in the USA and in Europe. In the USA it was neglected and almost forgotten for more than a century after Poe’s death, but in Europe it was widely read and intensely discussed after Charles Baudelaire published a French translation in 1859.
This publication was made in several installments in a popular Swiss international cultural and literary magazine, the ‘Revue Internationale’. Due to this wide and popular introduction of ‘Eureka’ in Europe, it became much better known there than in the USA. And because Poe had no enemies in Europe and was admired, and even worshipped by many, as a visionary and prophetic writer and poet, also ‘Eureka’ was taken very seriously. As a result it was much studied and discussed in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
I will not discuss and explain again the many revolutionary scientific and spiritual ideas that Poe proposed in ‘Eureka’. That has been done before, also by others,[ii] but to give an idea, I will mention a few of the most revealing examples:
- A theory about a ‘Big Bang’ and a dynamic, ‘cyclic’ universe.
- A ‘multiverse’; the existence of other universes next to ours.
- The mathematical ‘equality’ of matter and energy.
- Time-space continuity.
- Black holes as the dramatic final stage of stars and even galaxies.
- The ‘butterfly effect’ as foundation for a chaotic and unpredictable universe.
- The velocity of light as the speed limit for electromagnetic phenomena, including a rudimentary concept of relativity.
- The solution of the ‘Olbers paradox’. (Why is the night sky dark, if there is an unlimited number of stars?)
- Evolution of species.
It is clear that such ideas were contrary to all scientific and religious beliefs and convictions of the 19th century, so it is not surprising that ‘Eureka’ was regarded as a dangerous and objectionable piece by Poe’s American contemporaries. Incidentally this also happened outside of the USA, and in 1871 ‘Eureka’ was even officially forbidden in Russia, although Poe’s other works were very popular and influential there!
I want to make a special remark here on Poe’s ideas about evolution of species, even of the human one, because the two paragraphs in ‘Eureka’ where evolution is mentioned are often overlooked.[iii] More research is needed here, but I think that Poe became convinced of evolution when he studied sea shells and edited ‘The Conchologist’s First Book’ (in 1839). And indeed: there is no better place to see evolution in action than in fossil deposits of sea shells! This study must also have given Poe the brilliant idea that evolution of species is the result of two independent forces. First there is a gradual ‘vital’ development of life into ever more heterogeneous and complex structures. However, this autonomous process is periodically interrupted and set on entirely new courses by cosmic and/or geologic catastrophes (an idea that Poe used in the story ‘The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion’, where life on earth is terminated by a near-collision with a comet). It is remarkable that also ‘The Conchologist’s First Book’, probably Poe’s purest scientific work, is ignored by literary Poe scholars, while the famous American evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould called it ‘Poe’s greatest hit’!
However, the fact remains that Poe wrote about evolution and extinction of species, years before Charles Darwin dared to publish ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859. And since Charles Darwin was primarily a marine biologist, one must wonder if he read ‘The Conchologist’s First Book’ and was perhaps inspired by it!?
The influence of ‘Eureka’ in science
As I have argued in my papers for the Poe conferences in Baltimore (2002) and Philadelphia (2009), Poe had an enormous influence in Europe. Not only in literature, but also in other fields, as in music (Debussy), in philosophy (Nietzsche, Bergson, Valéry) and in science.
In the scientific field, I mentioned the physicists Alexander Friedmann (Russia, 1888-1925) and Georges Lemaître (Belgium, 1894-1966), who independently of each other developed the scientific and mathematical concepts of the dynamic universe (Friedmann, in 1922) and the ‘Big Bang’ (Lemaitre, in 1927). Both used basic ideas from ‘Eureka’, and Poe was even a favorite author of Friedmann, but one must consider the fact that Poe’s ideas were so widely known that they had become ‘memes’, ready to be picked up when their time had come. And the ‘Roaring Twenties’, after the ravages of the Great War and the Spanish Flu pandemic, when the world was desperate for a new heaven and a new earth, and the old ‘certainties’ of science were thrown overboard by the advent of quantum physics and the theory of relativity, certainly was such a time.
Also the American astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) has recently come to my attention, the scientist who in 1929 proved that the theories of Friedmann and Lemaitre were right, and that the universe is indeed expanding, by measuring the ‘red shift’ of the light of distant galaxies. Hubble was a fanatic collector of original books on astronomy and cosmology, thereby advised and helped by his wife Grace who had studied American literature. So we may safely assume that Edwin and Grace Hubble had an original copy of ‘Eureka’ (which were not difficult to find then). Moreover, Hubble was a trustee of the Huntington Library in Pasadena, which has an original ‘Eureka’ since 1916, so he had easy and free access to copy[iv].
In my paper for the Philadelphia conference (2009) I noted that Poe, Friedmann and Lemaitre had similar military backgrounds: all three were experts in explosives and ballistics. So they were trained in the creation and observation of highly dynamic processes, and the idea of an exploding universe was not strange to them. And, to my surprise, I discovered that Edwin Hubble was even one of the world’s greatest experts in explosives and ballistics! During World War I he served with the US Army in France and during World War II he was director of the ballistics research laboratory of the US Army Air Force. In 1946, in an interview, he remarked: ‘There is a curious affinity between ballistics and astronomy!’ How true!
A matter of utmost gravity
Poe’s motivation to design an entirely new universe came from his philosophical rejection of the scientific universe that had arisen from Newton’s celestial mechanics. This so-called ‘clockwork universe’ is totally determined and leaves no room for the human free will. The clearest description of such a ‘closed’ mathematical-mechanical prison is ‘The Pit and he Pendulum’, but there are more Poe-stories in which clocks and/or pendulums are symbols or instruments of physical and spiritual death and destruction (‘The Masque of the Red Death’; ‘A Predicament’; ‘Hop Frog’; ‘The Devil in the Belfry’; ‘Descent into the Maelstrom’).
However, to Poe, this meant that in a ‘new’ universe the force of gravity could not be the fundamental and all-determining force that it is in Newton’s celestial mechanics. So Poe reduces gravity to a secondary and temporary effect that emerges from a really fundamental force, the ‘sympathy’ that acts between fundamental particles (or atoms in Poe’s time).[v] Since this ‘sympathy’ acts instantaneous throughout the universe, so does the gravity effect. This diverging gravity hypothesis of Poe is the real big idea behind ‘Eureka’, and it has a few remarkable consequences.
Many of Poe’s prophetic scientific ideas are the logical results of this gravity hypothesis, so one can say that this hypothesis has amazing predictive powers. In fact, I considered Poe’s gravity hypothesis as so successful, that already in 1986 I held it to be superior. This means, among other things, that ‘gravity events’ (like a collision between two stars or a supernova explosion) are transmitted through space with infinite speed, and that the ‘gravity waves’ that such events are supposed to generate do not exist, at least not in the form in which they are predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. In many of my publications since 1986[vi], I have pointed out that major international scientific experiments to detect such ‘gravity waves’, like the European GEO 600 and the American LIGO and VIRGO, would either show nothing, or they would tell us something about the present condition of our universe. And therefore such results will be meaningless, because they are incomparable with all other means of observation by (radio)telescopes, which tell us about the universe of millions or even billions of years ago, because that information comes to us with ‘only’ the velocity of light.
And so far these scientific ‘gravity wave’ experiments have shown no results at all…
The Albert Einstein letters on ‘Eureka’
During the Poe conference in Philadelphia, I heard that two letters by Albert Einstein about ‘Eureka’ were sold in 2002 for $ 10.000. A further search showed that Einstein read ‘Eureka’ twice, in 1933 and in 1940, and that he actually wrote four letters about it.
In 1933, the Poe-collector Richard Gimbel asked Albert Einstein to read and evaluate ‘Eureka’. Einstein had just fled from Germany to the USA and his English was not good, so he answered Gimbel in German. His first letter to Gimbel is as follows (English translation):[vii]
13 December 1933.
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.
The second letter from Einstein to Gimbel reads as follows (English translation):
7 January 1934.
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 unusually 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.
- A. Einstein.
These two letters show a positive attitude from Einstein towards Poe. But he did not read ‘Eureka’ entirely, probably because of lack of time and his still insufficient knowledge of English.[viii] However, his admiration for the first part, the ‘letter from the future’,[ix] is quite remarkable, because that is the part where many readers stop taking Poe seriously because he ridicules several of the greatest scientific minds in human history.
In June 1940, also the Poe-biographer Arthur Quinn asked Einstein to read and evaluate ‘Eureka’. This time Einstein was on vacation at Saranac Lake (NY) and he could read and write English well.[x]
His first letter to Quinn was as follows:[xi]
June 29, 1940.
My dear Dr. Quinn,
I have read the essay of Poe you mentioned in your letter of June 22 some years ago. I do not have the works of the poet at hand here and cannot remember clearly the contents of the essay. My impression was that the article must be valued more from the artistic than from the scientific standpoint. If you would like a more precise answer I would suggest to send me a copy of ‘EUREKA’.
- A. Einstein.
Apparently Arthur Quinn sent Einstein the requested copy, and a few weeks later Einstein gave the following verdict:
August 6th, 1940.
My dear Dr. Quinn,
Apparently I was mistaken in my belief that I had read before Poe’s essay ‘Eureka’. Therefore, it was quite new to me. I must confess that on the whole it was a bad disappointment.
The beginning is very witty and remarkable insofar as Poe clearly recognizes that true science is only possible through a combination of systematic experimentation and logical construction. The exemplification of Kepler’s work is lucid – though not sufficient consideration is given to Tycho Brahe’s observational basis. The discussion of the finity-infinity problem is rather weak, even taking into consideration the fact that non-eucledian geometry was not generally accessible to non-mathematicians in those days. It is astonishing f.i. that the simplest example of actual infinity – the system of whole numbers – is not mentioned.
When Poe comes to his own constructions he loses every sense of that critical mood prevailing in the beginning pages and the whole presentation shows a striking resemblance to the scientific crank-letters I receive every day. I cannot help having the impression of a pathological personality being overwhelmed by an idée fixe depriving him of the possibility of critical corrections.
- A. Einstein.
This complete turnaround of Einstein is amazing. Poe, the master, the creative son of America, that unusually independent mind, that wonderful man, is suddenly a pathological personality?[xii] Why this sudden denial of Poe and ‘Eureka’?
Upon closer reading of the fourth letter, it is clear that Einstein’s remarks are either untrue or beside the point. In my opinion here is only one logical explanation for Einstein’s weird behavior: he was deeply shocked when he realized that Poe had developed ideas that were similar to his own, but already in 1848. Einstein must also have noticed Poe’s superior theory of gravitation, which was a direct threat to his own cherished General Theory of Relativity. And he must have understood that Poe and ‘Eureka’ had inspired Friedmann and Lemaître, with whom he had serious differences of opinion when they published their theories on the dynamic and exploding universe.[xiii] The young Einstein was a firm believer in a ‘static’ and unchangeable universe, so he could not accept the consequences of his own theory of relativity, which indicated that the universe is not static. In order to correct this, he inserted a ‘cosmological constant’ in his General Theory of Relativity; an act that he later regretted as ‘the biggest blunder in my life’.
Einstein was probably the first who fully understood what Poe had done, and he decided that it could better be buried and forgotten forever; understandable from a personal view, but unforgivable from a scientific standpoint. Einstein’s fourth letter about ‘Eureka’ was another big blunder, and, like the first one, it was directly related to Poe’s work.
A new view on gravity
In 2010 the eminent Dutch theoretical physicist Erik Verlinde (University of Amsterdam) published an article ‘On the Origin of Gravity and the laws of Newton’[xiv]. In this article Verlinde asserted that gravity is not a fundamental force of nature, but a phenomenon that ‘emerges’ from other forces at a fundamental level. This idea (including elegant and surprisingly simple mathematics) hit the scientific world like a bombshell, and many magazines and newspapers paid attention to it.[xv] In this article Verlinde also stated that Einstein’s geometrical formulation of space-time must be given up in order to understand gravity at a deeper level. That same year Verlinde received the Spinoza Award, the Netherlands highest award for excellence in science, primarily for his earlier work, but also for his ‘revolutionary’ new idea on gravity (‘An idea that will alter our understanding of the universe’ as the motivation said).
I informed Erik Verlinde, the University of Amsterdam and the Spinoza Committee about the fact that Poe published an identical idea 162 years earlier. An idea, moreover, about which I had published a few dozen articles in Dutch newspapers and magazines since 1986.
After laborious discussions Verlinde admitted:
“It is remarkable how far [Poe] dared to deviate from the mechanistic approach of Newton, and yet find a logical explanation for the phenomenon of gravity, at least as an idea. The mathematical elaboration is lacking, but Poe’s insight is close to the present opinion of me and other colleagues”.[xvi]
Modern theoretical (astro)physics has apparently reached a point where Poe arrived already in 1848. However, it is a supreme paradox that modern science is also based on ideas from ‘Eureka’ for which Poe never got the credits, while the scientists who used his ideas did not fathom or accept Poe’s ultimate truth that gravity is NOT a fundamental force of nature. This makes matters unnecessarily complicated, and in my opinion it is the main reason why it is impossible to unite the two pillars of modern science, quantum physics and the General Theory of Relativity. Simply because they are separated by a common belief in fundamental gravity.
Ladies and gentlemen.
Dear Poe Friends.
I rest my case for the time being, but I am sure that we have not reached the end of ‘Eureka’. More will follow soon.
[i] Dr.Ir. Jacob van Slooten (1905-1965) was a pioneer in the field of radio and television technology, and an expert in applied mathematics. He held over 40 international patents. He also wrote articles on science and philosophy and two monographs about Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger. He learned me that scientific theories and models are always approximations, and that it is a principal error to hold them to be ‘true’. Each and every scientific model or theory will sooner or later be replaced by an improved or new understanding. Also this frank attitude towards science made him such an original scientist.
[ii] See the articles by Juan Lartigue, Alberto Cappi and me on the website www.poe-eureka.com.
[iii] See paragraphs 159 and 160 in the ‘Eureka’ text on the website www.poe-eureka.com
[iv] I asked the Huntington Library if Hubble ever borrowed or requested their ‘Eureka’ for study, but for reasons of privacy they may not give such information, even if the person in question died 60 years ago.
[v] The way in which Poe handles this delicate matter is worthy of a study in itself. He knew too well that Newton’s celestial mechanics and the fundamental character of gravity were unassailable and indisputable, and yet he had to make a fundamental change without losing his own credibility. After long and carefully formulated arguments, the definite word comes finally in paragraph 236, towards the end of ‘Eureka’.
[vi] The number of my publications and radio interviews in the Netherlands since 1986, amounts to about 50. In most cases I have mentioned Poe’s gravity hypothesis and possible scientific consequences thereof.
[vii] Copies of the two letters from Einstein to Richard Gimbel are in the Gimbel collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
[viii] 1933 had been an eventful and busy year for Einstein because he emigrated from Germany to the USA after Adolf Hitler came to power.
[ix] See paragraphs 11 till 25 of the ‘Eureka’ text on the www.poe-eureka.com website.
[x] Nevertheless it was an emotional and busy time for Einstein. The news from Europe was very bad: Adolf Hitler was victorious on all fronts, and the Battle for Britain was going to its climax. Einstein, the pacifist, was also under much pressure from his friends to support the development of nuclear weapons, and his famous letter to President Roosevelt about the Manhattan Project was written only a few weeks earlier.
[xi] The two letters from Einstein to Arthur Quinn are in the Quinn collection at the library of the University of Pennsylvania.
[xii] Sigmund Freud used the term ‘pathological’ for Poe, in his foreword for the psycho-analytical biography of Poe that was published (in French) in 1933 by his friend and disciple princess Marie Bonaparte. This revolting ‘Freudian-sexual’ interpretation of Poe, his life and his works, was translated into German in 1934 and into English in 1949. It generated much attention and discussion, and it severely damaged Poe’s image and reputation, certainly in Europe. Einstein, a good friend of Freud, must have known this book and Freud’s opinion of Poe. If anything, this ‘biography’, written by a woman who suffered from serious sexual frustrations, proves how disastrously wrong and misleading psycho-analyses can be.
[xiii] Friedman published his article on the dynamic universe in 1922. It was in fact a fundamental correction of the General Theory of Relativity, which infuriated Einstein so much that he tried to get it retracted.
And when Lemaître explained his ideas to Einstein in 1929, Einstein remarked ‘Your mathematics is good, but your physics is abominable’. It was only in 1933 that Einstein openly admitted that Lemaître was right and that he had been wrong with his belief in a ‘static’ universe.
[xiv] See ‘Journal of High Energy Physics’ 04(2011)029 for the full text.
[xv] See for instance ‘A Scientist takes on Gravity’ by Dennis Overbye in the ‘New York Times’; July 13, 2010.
[xvi] E-mail from Erik Verlinde to me, 21 November 2012.