Eddington and Quinn about Eureka

Arthur H. Quinn, author of the best and most authoritative biography about Poe, asked Sir Arthur Eddington an opinion about Eureka:

Having quoted so freely from the work of Sir Arthur Eddington, Plumian Professor of Astronomy, at Cambridge University, I felt it proper to submit this analysis of Eureka to him, in order that I might not misinterpret his views. He was good enough to reply as follows:

1940 Sept 29

I am returning your typescript separately, as I think a letter is less likely to be delayed.

First, I raise no objections to any of your quotations from my writings. Opinions will naturally differ as to how far the resemblance between the ideas I am attempting to express and those of Poe to which the quotations are considered relevant should be stressed rather than the differences; but, whilst not always convinced of the appropriateness, I am not averse to their being used in your argument.

Secondly, I think you make out clearly that ``Eureka" is not a work of dotage or disordered mind. It is, I think, the work of a man trying to reconcile the science of his time with the more philosophical and spiritual cravings of the mind. Poe, besides being fairly well-informed in science and mathematics, seems to have had the mind of a mathematician, and consequently was not to be put off with vague phrases; and made a creditable attempt to introduce precision of thought.

The correspondence between some of his ideas and modern views is interesting; but, as bearing on his intellectual powers, one must view it with some detachment. Any one of independent mind , -a rebel against conventionally accepted views- is likely to hit the marks sometimes. This is particularly the case when it is a case of philosophical and spiritual intuition versus scientific progress. The idea of ``unity in diversity and diversity in unity" is now becoming actually realised in scientific theory; but until science had reached a certain stage of development it was no more helpful to science than the doctrine of the Trinity which contains the same idea. I expect many believed that this must be an ultimate truth, but science must be left gradually to find it by its own pedestrian progress.

I should say then that regarded as an attempt to put forward a new physical theory, Eureka would rightly be regarded as a crank-theory by scientists of the time. (The trouble with cranks is usually, not that they are not far-seeing, but that they have no appreciation of the immediate obstacles in the road.) Poe's more definite suggestions (in the contemporary state of science) were not unintelligent but amateurish. But as a ``poem" on the significance of things as partially revealed in the state of science of the time, I think it showed a fine penetration.

Yours sincerely,

A.S. Eddington

If you should wish to quote any of these remarks, by all means do so.

From: Edgar Allan Poe: a critical biography, by Arthur Hobson Quinn, 1941, Appleton-Century-Crofts, pp.555-556.

It is ironical that Sir Eddington was the author of a theory based on numerical coincidences which was regarded by many of his colleagues as a crank theory. His comments concerning Eureka are interesting, but miss some crucial points. This letter assumed different meanings depending on the readers; someone quoting that "Poe [...] seems to have had the mind of a mathematician", others that Eureka was a ``crank-theory". In my own opinion, Poe had not the mind of a mathematician, but surely he had the mind of a cosmologist: in 1848 it would have been difficult to consider Eureka as a crank-theory, as cosmology had not the status of a science.

Quinn was aware of the difficulties in the interpretation of Eureka (p.557):

Poe was not, therefore, as has been frequently stated, entering in 1848 upon a period of mental decline. His mind was clear and his imaginative power was still capable of dealing with scientific problems that tax the best of modern thinkers. How far he might have proceeded had he possessed adequate technical training we can only surmise. That Eureka produced little effect upon the science of its own day is not surprising. Its concepts were in most cases, unusual, and the hospitality of science to unusual theories, especially those of men of letters, is not large.

And yet, ironically, the general reader must have the help of a scientist in reading the essay, for the ideas are not readily grasped. Even when they are, the mysticism of the essay is forbidding to those who are realistically inclinded. Poe's message is not to these, and yet as Eddington says, ``It is reasonable to inquire whether in the mystical illusions of man there is not a reflection of an underlying reality."

I fully agree with Quinn. For example, I point out that Poe, "with adequate technical training", would have correctly predicted the Hubble law.

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