Today, gothic cosmology. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
You and I tend to know
Edgar Allan Poe through movies and TV better than
we do through his actual words. Murders in the
Rue Morgue, The Fall of the House of
Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum --
they all devolve into cinematic images. Even
The Raven is a more cinematic than
literary experience for most of us. We don't know
Poe as well as we might. And that's too bad.
Poe was a true polymath with a vast breadth of
knowledge that included a deep understanding of
science. One of his least known books was titled
Eureka: A Prose Poem. It was published in
1848, the year before he died at the age of forty.
Poe is not the least bit timid in this small
treatise. He says,
I design to speak of the Physical, Metaphysical
and Mathematical -- of the Material and Spiritual
Universe: -- of its Essence, its Origin, its
Creation, its Present Condition and its
That's pretty brazen! Still, physicists and
philosophers deal with all these issues. They just
don't often put them all on the same plate.
Poe starts out by lampooning science for trying to
base itself entirely on data. He insists that
scientific understanding always comes through an
intuitive leap of the mind. The Romantic poets just
before him had said the same thing -- that for two
hundred years, scientists had been trying to
extract truth from endless observations. Scientists
were just about to see the sense of what Poe and
the Romantics were saying. And science was just
about to make its next great leap forward.
Poe then offers a masterful synthesis of what we
knew about the cosmos. He talks about Laplace's
work and about the role of the speed of light. It's
a brilliant summary, not only of the reach and
structure of the universe, but its shape
as well. All the while, he doggedly insists on
seeing the cosmos subjectively -- for the
objectification of science has been its undoing.
Finally, he makes deductions. Fifty-seven years
before Einstein's first paper on relativity, he
suggests that matter is merely condensed energy. He
anticipates black holes. He suggests that the
universe is finite but endless. What that meant
would become clear only after we had non-Euclidean
In 1941, a Poe biographer, needing help with
Eureka, went to the great Einstein
interpreter, Sir Arthur Eddington. Eddington
credited Poe with a cutting-edge understanding of
contemporary science. He also noted that
intelligent guesswork has to yield a few lucky
hits. But still more hits have emerged since then.
Poe concludes that the universe will be annihilated
as its particles seek out unity with one another.
He seems at odds with the more positive
transcendentalists, like Emerson. Yet this is
precisely where our oscillating universe theory
takes us. As all particles collapse into one and
identity dies, Poe sees us becoming a part of the
one great intelligence -- a part of God. And Poe,
at last, turns out to be not so Gothic, not so
morbid, after all.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Poe, E. A. Eureka: A Prose Poem. Kobenhavn:
Green Integer, 1997 (originally published in
Quinn, A. H., S. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical
Biography. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1998 (originally published in
1941). Chapter XVII, Eureka.
For an interesting technical commentary on Eureka,
For a the text of Eureka see:
For more on Poe and science, see Episode 1090. I am grateful to
Roberta Weldon, UH English Department, for counsel on
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.