When Edgar Allan Poe Looked Beyond The Stars

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Eliza Strickland revisits his long prose-poem about the origins and fate of the universe, Eurekawhich includes “a spookily intuitive description of the Big Bang theory more than 70 years before astrophysicists came up with the idea”:  

Scientists who have read Eureka in the decades since have justly called attention to errors in other parts of Poe’s cosmology, and many consider his Big Bang notion to be nothing more than a lucky guess. But a few give Poe credit for a creative leap that contemporaneous astronomers were unable to make. Alberto Cappi is an Italian astronomer who studies galactic clusters and the structure of the universe, and who has taken an interest in Eureka. “It’s surprising that Poe arrived at his dynamically evolving universe, because there was no observational or theoretical evidence suggesting such a possibility,” Cappi wrote in an email. “No astronomer in Poe’s day could imagine a non-static universe.”

Perhaps the astronomers of Poe’s day didn’t have his motivation. Eureka goes on to propose that all the scattered and blown-apart atoms of the universe are now rushing together again, compelled by their “appetite for oneness.” In the due course of ages, he says, the “bright stars will become blended,” and all matter will merge in a final embrace. Poe, the bereft widower, seems to take comfort in this promise of reunification, perhaps dreaming of being reunified with his love. Many of today’s cosmologists predict a quite different fate for us all: an ever-continuing expansion, with all matter spread out in an increasingly diffuse and featureless Universe. The macabre Poe, rather than the romantic one, might have found that conclusion appropriate.

(Photo by John Lemieux)