The May issue of the Dutch science monthly “NWT Magazine” brings an article, writen by George van Hal, on the genesis of relativity and Big Bang concepts, as conceived early by Edgar Allan Poe in Eureka. Thanks to René van Slooten (quoted in the article), who adapted it and provided the English version, you can read the article here.
From the Dutch science monthly ‘NWT MAGAZINE’, May 2012. (www.nwtonline.nl)
The universe of Edgar Allan Poe
Original article written in Dutch by George van Hal
Translated and adapted to website by René van Slooten
Decades before science did so, the American author Edgar Allan Poe wrote about the Big Bang and relativity. In recently discovered letters Albert Einstein burns down Poe’s work. But was that criticism justified, or was Poe smarter than physicists like Einstein, Friedmann, Hubble and Lemaître?
It was a scientific paradigm shift that all at once changed our view of the universe. In 1922 the Russian mathematician and physicist Alexander Friedmann (1888-1925) took a closer look at the equations of Albert Einstein’s only seven year old general theory of relativity, and reached a remarkable conclusion. According to Friedmann’s calculations the universe was not the static, unchangeable and eternal home that we had presumed up to that moment. No, the universe appeared dynamic, changeable and slowly increasing in size.
It was a discovery that changed everything so drastically, that even Einstein did not accept it at first, although he succumbed later. Friedmann’s discovery was a great break-through and the first of many new insights into relativity, the Big Bang and the expanding universe.
Or so begins the official history of modern cosmology. But maybe something important is missing from it. According to some, the idea of the expanding universe does not originate at all with Alexander Friedmann. They are of the opinion that Friedmann’s great break-through was inspired by an obscure text of the American writer Edgar Allan Poe.
One of those people who is convinced of that, is the Dutch chemist René van Slooten. About 30 years ago he helped his mother to remove, and found an old, 19th century edition of Poe’s work in a box in the attic. When he leafed through it, he found something remarkable – it was full of stories that he had never read or heard of before.
One of these unknown stories was Eureka, a prose-poem about the material and spiritual universe (as Poe described it), in which the master explained his ideas about the universe. Van Slooten was intrigued immediately, because he is the son of a physicist who worked at the Philips Physics Laboratory. To his amazement he read in this story, written in 1848, that Poe already had developed ideas and concepts that were developed in science only many years later. He found paragraphs about the Big Bang and the creation of the universe from a primordial particle, about the dynamic universe and black holes, although Poe used his own terminology. Van Slooten even saw a part in which Poe stated that the velocity of light is the absolute speed limit for electromagnetic phenomena. Which, acoording to Van Slooten, lead Poe to the description of a rudimentary theory of relativity.
Van Slooten says: “When I read all this, I thought that something very strange was going on”. And bit by bit he immersed himself deeper and deeper into Poe’s philosophy. He immediately searched for a recent edition of Eureka, but to his amazement that did not exist. “I contacted the Poe Museum (in Richmond, USA) and several American professors in literature, but no-one could help me.
It soon became clear that in American literary circles Eureka had the reputation of being nonsense. “For generations literary students were told that it was not worth reading, so no-one did”, says Van Slooten, who therefore decided to write an article about it. “It took me a lot of persuasion to get it published, because for literary editors Eureka is just a lot of abracadabra, and science editors did not believe me at first”.
But now, 30 years later, Van Slooten has devoted more than 40 publications and lectures to Poe and Eureka, and published the first Dutch translation of Poe’s masterpiece. Moreover, he found that he is not the only one who is fascinated by Poe’s philosophy. In 2001 he found a supporter in the American science writer Tom Siegfried. In his book Strange Matters Siegfried argued for the first time that Alexander Friedmann – a great fan of Poe- must have known Eureka, from which he got the inspiration for his theory about the dynamic universe.
And even before Siegfried, the Italian astronomer Alberto Cappi (University of Bologna) explored Poe’s universe. He published his findings in 1994 in the astronomical magazine Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society. Cappi described how Eureka contained a theory about the Big Bang and other modern cosmological concepts.
According Van Slooten, also an earlier generation of scientists must have noticed such things. He is of the opinion that the Belgian physicist Georges Lemaître (1894-1966), the father of the Big Bang theory, also got his inspiration from Eureka. Van Slooten: “In Belgium Poe’s influence was enormous. Lemaître, who had a profound interest in literature, knew Poe’s work when he developed his theory of the Big Bang”. And according Van Slooten, even Edwin Hubble must have known Eureka. Hubble was the astronomer who actually proved the expansion of the universe. Indications of his knowledge of Eureka are only indirect, unfortunately. “But”, says Van Slooten, “Hubble was a trustee of the Huntington Library in Pasadena, which since 1916 owns a copy of the original 1848 edition of Eureka. For privacy reasons the library may not tell if Hubble ever read or borrowed that copy, but most probably he had his own, since he was an avid collector of astronomical books, assisted by his wife Grace, who had studied American literature”.
Still much evidence is indirect, but Van Slooten is certain: each and every one of the few scientists who created modern cosmology, knew that they were not the first to come up with these ideas.
Until recently one great name was absent from the list of scientists who read Eureka: Albert Einstein. However, a rich Poe-collector informed Van Slooten that letters about Eureka, written in 1933 by Einstein to Poe-collector Richard Gimbel were sold in 2003 for $ 10.000. Van Slooten decided to start a search for these letters, and found them last year in an American archive. Moreover, he found two more letters about Eureka, written by Einstein in 1940 to the American Poe-biographer Arthur Quinn. These letters proved that also Einstein read Eureka.
Einstein begins his letters to Quinn in a positive way: “The beginning is very funny and remarkable, because Poe clearly understands that true science can only take place through a systematic combination of experiments and logical construction”. But after that, Einstein sees a decrease in quality of the work. “When Poe starts to develop his own ideas, he loses the critical mood of the beginning , and the presentation resembles 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”.
Van Slooten thinks that these firm words of Einstein betray strong emotions. “I think that Einstein was one of the very few, maybe even the first, who really understood Poe’s intentions”. Van Slooten thinks that reading Poe’s ideas about relativity, the Big Bang and the dynamic universe, was not a pleasant experience for Einstein, because he himself had needed much more time to master such ideas. “These negative feelings show in the letters” says Van Slooten. But Einstein was right is his critique that Poe’s work is not scientific in modern terms. Proofs and a sound base are lacking in the text, and Poe choose to express his ideas in cryptic literary phrases. But was that perhaps done deliberately? In several places Poe makes it clear that he wrote Eureka for the future, because he knew that his ideas were unacceptable to his contemporaries, and writing them down bluntly and directly would have made matters only worse for him: “I can afford to wait a century for readers when God himself has waited six thousand years for an observer”.
But Van Slooten is of the opinion that this cryptic literary style should not distract the reader, and he argues that we should take Eureka seriously. “And more and more people are doing so, fortunately. Eureka is much more valuable than just a piece by an amateur, because it is consistent and coherent. One can see that Poe has thought about it during his whole life”. And there is a huge difference between Poe’s work and the scientific crank-letters that Einstein received regularly: Poe was right in the end!
Van Slooten thinks that even now, scientists can learn from Eureka. According to Poe, gravity is not a fundamental force of nature – an idea that is shared by modern scientists like Spinoza Award winner Erik Verlinde. But Poe chose a different approach than Verlinde. “According to Poe, gravity proceeds with infinite velocity”, Van Slooten says. If modern scientists should reach the same conclusion, the prophetic powers of a piece, written by a layman in 1848, will be even greater than anticipated.
(Note: In an interview in the Dutch newspaper ‘NRC Handelsblad’, 28 januari 2012, Verlinde said that according to him gravity acts instantaneous, thus with infinite velocity).
Therefore it is high time that scientists widen their knowledge of Poe, Van Slooten thinks. And therefore he has a simple advice for the present generation: “Start reading Eureka and open yourself for ideas from the 19th century!” #