RE: Edgar Allen Poe and the Big Bang

From: Vincent Campbell (
Date: Tue 12 Nov 2002 - 15:16:21 GMT

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    No idea if there's any real merit in the argument presented in this piece, but just wanted to lay my cards on the table as a big fan of Edgar Allen Poe.

    He's one of those genre fiction writers whose work has seeped its way into wider culture. That difference between authors whose work does become constantly redone, reused, reworked in other forms (e.g. plays, films, radio shows, TV etc.etc) is an interesting one for memetics, because one can contrast it those authors whose work doesn't achieve this.

    Of course, as an artefact-meme proponent, one would do some kind of diffusion analysis, then perhaps something along the lines of Propp's morphology of the folk tale, to try and work out which bits are those that are enabling the wider dissemination of particular works.


    > ----------
    > From: Wade T.Smith
    > Reply To:
    > Sent: Monday, November 11, 2002 8:16 PM
    > To: Memetics Listserv
    > Subject: Fwd: Edgar Allen Poe and the Big Bang
    > What Did Poe Know About Cosmology? Nothing. But He Was Right.
    > In 1848, by then a nationally celebrated poet, Edgar Allan Poe published
    > "Eureka," a 150-page prose poem on the nature and origin of the
    > universe. The work, an overheated grab bag of metaphysics and cosmology,
    > was a flop. A reviewer for Literary World likened it to "arrant fudge."
    > A hundred years later T. S. Eliot summed up the critical consensus.
    > "Eureka," he wrote, "makes no deep impression . . . because we are aware
    > of Poe's lack of qualification in philosophy, theology or natural
    > science."
    > Of course, Eliot had a point: "Eureka" was the work of an amateur, a
    > backyard stargazer who read astronomy books in his spare time.
    > But Eliot himself no scientist was underestimating his fellow poet.
    > Eighty years before 20th-century cosmologists hammered out the math,
    > Poe, it turns out, came up with a rudimentary version of contemporary
    > science's best guess for explaining how the universe began.
    > Departing from conventional wisdom of the day, which saw the universe as
    > static and eternal, Poe insisted that it had exploded into being from a
    > single "primordial particle" in "one instantaneous flash."
    > "From the one particle, as a center," he wrote, "let us suppose to be
    > irradiated spherically in all directions to immeasurable but still
    > to definite distances in the previously vacant space a certain
    > inexpressibly great yet limited number of unimaginably yet not
    > infinitely minute atoms."
    > The language is vague and convoluted, and some details are wrong (Poe
    > had no concept of relativity, and it makes no sense today to speak of
    > the universe exploding into "previously vacant space"), but here,
    > unmistakably, is a crude description of the Big Bang, a theory that
    > didn't find mainstream approval until the 1960's.
    > This wasn't Poe's only uncanny display of prescience. He also came up
    > with the idea that the universe was expanding (and might eventually
    > collapse), a notion that the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann
    > ferreted out of Einstein's equations in 1922. Einstein initially
    > pooh-poohed the idea, and it wasn't widely accepted until the 1930's,
    > after Edwin Hubble gleaned some hard data from the velocities of
    > far-flung galaxies.
    > Black holes? Poe envisioned something like those, too. And he was the
    > first person on record to solve the Olbers Paradox, which had dogged
    > astronomers since Kepler: the mystery of why the sky is dark at night.
    > If the universe was infinite, as 19th-century astronomers believed,
    > there should be an infinite number of stars as well, plenty, in other
    > words, to illuminate the sky at all times. Poe understood why this in
    > fact was not the case: the universe is finite in time and space (and
    > light from some stars has not yet reached the Milky Way).
    > So what accounts for Poe's prophetic genius? Tom Siegfried, the science
    > editor of The Dallas Morning News, doesn't explain just how the poet
    > derived his cosmological theory, but in his new book, "Strange Matters:
    > Undiscovered Ideas at the Frontiers of Space and Time" (Joseph Henry
    > Press), he argues that the history of astrophysics is littered with such
    > "prediscoveries," or "instances of theoretical anticipation."
    > "There are lots of things theorists predict on the basis of what's known
    > and what's already been found," Mr. Siegfried explained in a telephone
    > interview. "The distinction with prediscovery is that theorists discover
    > the existence of something observers have never seen. It's one thing to
    > figure out an explanation for the observation. It's another thing
    > altogether to suggest something exists that no one had any idea about
    > beforehand."
    > Unlike, say, Leonardo da Vinci's sketches of "flying machines" or Jules
    > Verne's descriptions of submarines and televisions decades before such
    > objects were ever made, scientific prediscoveries, as Mr. Siegfried
    > defines them, are not human inventions awaiting technological
    > realization, but rather insights into the nature of reality.
    > "Eureka" may be Mr. Siegfried's most striking example, a literary mind
    > hitting the cosmological jackpot. But his list of bona fide
    > prediscoveries includes an impressive number of contemporary physics'
    > most basic concepts: antimatter, electromagnetic waves, neutron stars,
    > neutrinos, quarks and atoms.
    > In the 1860's the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell inferred the
    > existence of invisible radiation from a mathematical analysis of
    > electricity and magnetism. (Nine years after his death, Maxwell was
    > proved right when the radio waves were discovered by the German
    > physicist Heinrich Hertz.)
    > In 1931 the English physicist Paul Dirac came up with a more
    > preposterous-sounding notion: antimatter. From the mathematical
    > equations of other physicists, Dirac concluded that electrons, one of
    > the observed building blocks of atoms, must have identical but
    > oppositely charged twins. The following year Carl Anderson, an American
    > physicist, identified a positively charged electron, or positron, the
    > first antiparticle.
    > And around the same time, the Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli
    > prediscovered the neutrino: a neutral particle so light and undetectable
    > that it could pass through a lead wall trillions of miles thick without
    > a trace.
    > Given the number of successful prediscoveries in the past, Mr. Siegfried
    > argues, some of the wacky ideas floating around in astrophysics today
    > are bound to be validated sooner or later. That turns out to be an
    > alarming proposition: Mr. Siegfried's book is filled with enough
    > mysterious hypothetical entities some of which, under the right
    > circumstances could snuff out the earth in a nanosecond to sustain a
    > dozen Hollywood thrillers.
    > Which object will turn out to be real? Cosmic Q-balls ("lumps of super
    > matter that may have formed when tiny superparticles coagulated in the
    > hot dense phase of the early universe")? Wimpzillas (particles "heavier
    > than a million billion ordinary subatomic particles")? Or quark nuggets
    > (a four-ton object less than one twenty-fifth of an inch long that could
    > "shoot through Earth like a bullet through butter")?
    > Any of these concepts might help solve the mystery of "dark matter," the
    > unidentified stuff that astronomers believe makes up 90 percent or more
    > of an average galaxy's mass. Personally, Mr. Siegfried said, he's
    > betting on WIMP's that's short for weakly interacting massive
    > particles thought to be heavy, generally unstable particles that hover
    > in the outer regions of galaxies and rarely interact with ordinary
    > matter.
    > As extravagant as some of these potential prediscoveries sound, the
    > astronomers behind them have a substantial leg up on Poe. They're
    > working within a scientific world, using the latest technology, trading
    > information and comparing notes. And yet Mr. Siegfried raises the
    > tantalizing possibility that valuable scientific ideas may lie outside
    > science, awaiting a mathematical mind to seize on them: Alexander
    > Friedmann, the man credited with inferring the expansion of the universe
    > from Einstein's theory, he notes, loved Poe.
    > Did Friedmann read "Eureka?" No one seems to know. Nevertheless, Mr.
    > Siegfried speculates, it's quite possible "that Friedmann was
    > conditioned by Poe's imagination to see the true meaning of Einstein's
    > equations, whereas others, Einstein included, did not."
    > As for Poe, he never doubted that his ideas would eventually get their
    > due. "What I have propounded will (in good time) revolutionize the world
    > of Physical & Metaphysical Science," he wrote to a friend in 1848. "I
    > say this calmly but I say it."
    > *******
    > Here's a rather nicely memetic quote from 'Eureka' for youse-
    > "Let us begin, then, at once, with that merest of words, "Infinity."
    > This, like "God," "spirit," and some other expressions of which the
    > equivalents exist in all languages, is by no means the expression of an
    > idea -- but of an effort at one. It stands for the possible attempt at
    > an impossible conception. Man needed a term by which to point out the
    > direction of this effort -- the cloud behind which lay, forever
    > invisible, the object of this attempt. A word, in fine, was demanded, by
    > means of which one human being might put himself in relation at once
    > with another human being and with a certain tendency of the human
    > intellect. Out of this demand arose the word, "Infinity;" which is thus
    > the representative but of the thought of a thought."
    > Find it all at
    > - Wade
    > ===============================================================
    > This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    > Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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