Eureka!: Poetic Discovery and Poe: A Golden Nugget Post

Note: I only have a small number of ideas about poetry which are actually worth sharing. A handful of ideas — which may or may not even be original — does not a blog make, so I have to dole them out in small portions, with a whole lot of filler in between. These meaningful posts are conveniently labeled “Golden Nugget Posts,” named after my first car (a gold ’82 Chevy stationwagon). This is one such post.

As someone who likes to pretend he used to be a scientist — I majored in biochemistry, had a work study at an mRNA lab, and so on — I can’t help but wonder what life might have been like if I hadn’t jumped-ship for the po-biz. I say “pretend” because it was only three years as an undergraduate; my name appears on the tail-end of a few papers, but only as a glorified proofreader. Still, I had a nice toe-hold on a career path in pharmacology or virology, and my alumni newsletter tells me that the woman who took my place in the lab just received her PhD. What if that were me? What would it be like to come to work in a white coat and goggles instead of my boxers and a cup of coffee? I can’t even imagine…

I still subscribe to science journals and watch shows like Nova, and it has to be more than a coincidence that I find myself on a softball team of molecular biologists. After the games they sit around drinking beer, talking in a jargon I vaguely remember, and I can’t tell if it’s simple nostalgia or something more akin to regret that I feel.

But there’s solace in the fact that not all understanding comes from a lab. Real leaps of discovery is the stuff of poetry. It was Einstein’s thought experiments that changed the world. The structure of DNA came to Watson in a dream. Critical analysis followed for each, but the “aha!” didn’t come from inside a beaker or at a blackboard.

Which brings me to the roundabout point of this post. I was reading Michio Kaku’s Parallel Worlds a few weeks ago, and came across a story that I’d somehow never heard. Apparently, Edgar Allen Poe’s last work — which he considered to be his greatest — Eureka: A Prose Poem, not only presaged the Big Bang Theory by 80 years, but also provided the first plausible solution to Olbers’ Paradox.

Also called that Dark Sky Night Paradox, Heinrich Olbers described the problem of the relatively-low brightness of the night sky, in 1823. If the universe were infinite and eternal, as was commonly held at the time, then any line of sight would eventually hit the surface of a star — therefore every point in the sky would be bright. In Eureka (1849), Poe explains it like this:

Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present us a uniform luminosity, like that displayed by the Galaxy –since there could be absolutely no point, in all that background, at which would not exist a star. The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing the distance of the invisible background so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all.

Poe is describing the concept of a bounded observable universe. (Interestingly, another solution, which doesn’t require a finite “big bang” model involves a fractal distribution of stars…)

He goes on to explain how the universe sprung from a “primordial particle”:

…one particle — a particle of one kind — of one character — of one nature — of one size — of one form — a particle, therefore, “without form and void” — a particle positively a particle at all points — a particle absolutely unique, individual, undivided…

The particle then expands outward by “divine volition,” a repulsive force that’s opposed to gravity. Once matter is expelled outward it begins to clump together due to gravity, forming the stars and galaxies we see today. Eventually, gravity draws all matter together to once again form the primordial particle, resulting in an infinite serious of big bangs, and a continuously expanding and collapsing universe. Sound familiar?

Of course, Poe didn’t know about the red shift, about dark energy, or cosmic microwave background radiation. In fact, he didn’t know much about the details of science at all. But he was able to intuit one of the most fascinating theories of the century to follow him, using only his famed “ratiocination” — and poetry.

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