Edgar Allen Poe solved one of the great mysteries of physics


Ok, solved might be a rather strong word but he seems to have guessed the answer before anyone else.

The puzzle he cracked is something called Olbers’ Paradox.  I came across both this problem and Poe’s answer  for the first time in Jim Al-Khalili’s book Paradox: The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics. Al-Khalili explains gives a wonderfully clear and concise explanation of the paradox in the video below, but in essence its asks how it can get dark at night if there are a virtually infinite number of stars all giving off light. The answer is that because the universe has a finite age, the light from the bulk of stars simply hasn’t had time to reach the earth.

Poe seemed to work this out in 1848 in an essay called Eureka: a Prose Poem

No astronomical fallacy is more untenable, and none has been more pertinaciously adhered to, than that of the absolute illimitation of the Universe of Stars. The reasons for limitation, as I have already assigned them, a priori, seem to me unanswerable; but, not to speak of these, observation assures us that there is, in numerous directions around us, certainly, if not in all, a positive limit — or, at the very least, affords us no basis whatever for thinking otherwise. Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present us an 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. That this may be so, who shall venture to deny? I maintain, simply, that we have not even the shadow of a reason for believing that it is so.

I don’t know what this means for the debate about the art and science as two cultures. One the one hand Poe’s contribution was inadequate; he did not present any real evidence for his supposition.  It would a century until scientifically credible proofs were put forward. However, that a poet was the first to intuit the solution says much for the creative power of the arts.


One thought on “Edgar Allen Poe solved one of the great mysteries of physics

  1. Pingback: The Raven (Poem/Song) « EssayBoard

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