The Cosmology of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe is well known for his tales. On the contrary, Eureka has never been a popular work. The subject of this fascinating "prose poem" is cosmology. In order to understand Eureka we need to be aware of the status of astronomy in the first half of XIXth century. A few scientists in the past remarked its originality, but often concluded that there was no serious science in it.

Recently, Edward Harrison discovered in Eureka a correct solution of the Olbers' paradox, and pointed out the interest of Poe's cosmology.

However, I realized that Eureka had never been analysed in a systematic way. A careful reading of Eureka convinced me that, based on methaphysical assumptions, Poe conceived a physical cosmology, with a real importance for the history of ideas, as he was the only one to conceive a newtonian evolving Universe before the theory of relativity and the relativistic models. In fact, the expanding Universe is often considered a consequence of General Relativity, while it could be also conceived in terms of newtonian physics, as shown mathematically only after the Relativity theory, and after Hubble showed in a clear way that the Universe was expanding. Before Einstein and Hubble, no one rejected the dogma of a static Universe, with one exception: Edgar Allan Poe.

Eureka contains modern concepts as a universe which expands then recollapses, a common epoch of galaxy formation, and the use of the anthropic principle to explain the large scale of the Universe. A detailed discussion on these and other points is contained in my paper on Edgar Allan Poe's Physical Cosmology.

I would like to stress that this is not an anachronistic reading of Eureka. A common error in the critical literature about Eureka is indeed the supposed analogy of some concepts with General Relativity. However, Poe explicitely assumes a Newtonian universe. The fact that Eureka presents a cosmology which has many common points with our modern cosmology is not a coincidence: it is a consequence of the fact that an evolving newtonian universe can be a good approximation of a relativistic one.

It is clear that understanding Eureka requires a minimum knowledge of cosmology. You can find a nice introduction looking at Cambridge Cosmology.

If you want a multimedia experience, then look at the astronomical section of the Science for the Millenium Exhibition: really impressive!

A very good book about the history of modern cosmology is Cosmology and Controversy by Helge Kragh, Princeton University Press.

I have selected and discussed some quotations from Eureka, which should give an idea of the extraordinary originality and scientific interest of Poe's cosmology.

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