Edgar Allan Poe and Science: A Cosmic Poet

by Juan Lartigue G.*

left: x-ray image of the Crab nebula----right: optical image--click images for detail

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art

Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.

Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,

Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?

(from "Sonnet to Science," E.A.Poe) 


Extra-Solar Planets

The "Black Legend"

The Non-Existence of the Material Ether

Eureka, An Ignored Work

Chemical Affinity

On the Origin of the Universe

Molecular Structure

The Big Bang, the Expanding Universe and the Mind of God

Planetary Model of the Atom

Poe Anticipates Relativity

A Strange Comparison

Poe Contemplates Other Universes


Poe Foresees Modern Cosmologists’ Black Holes and The Big Crunch


Successive Universes

Works Cited



The literary talent of Edgar Allan Poe is beyond dispute, but his activity in the scientific area (condensed in Eureka) has been sadly neglected or ignored. Only recently have some researchers undertaken the labour of re-evaluating it. This recent re-evaluation is long overdue, especially, those propositions related to Cosmology. This paper purposes extensions of those propositions, as well as additional commentary, relating, in particular, to Chemistry.


The "Black Legend"

The 150th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s death last October did not earn Poe any special celebration in the scientific world either in the United States or abroad. Such neglect may be seen as a continuation of the "black legend" weaved, for various reasons, around one of the most innovative American writers of the 19th Century. In fact, his outstanding literary talent was widely recognized even by contemporaries such as Baudelaire, who named Poe his "twin soul" (Praz 492)**, but Poe’s capacity to perceive the physical nature of the cosmos was not understood in his time. What is difficult to understand is why Poe’s predictions, many of which have been confirmed by science, continue to be ignored.

The "black legend" was originated in part by his own character, at times, stormy and diffident; and also by his caustic literary criticism in the newspapers, which earned him the enmity of those vital to his own success. Unfortunately, many whom he had offended continued to smear his character after his death. As it has recently been written: "Later, that sad image was fed because the increase in the public's morbosity increased the sales...So, Poe became one of the typical personages of his terror stories" (Munnshe,1999 58). Afterwards, Munnshe writes: "...his intervaling mental breakdowns were not related to any shady metaphysical eagerness but to a very material factor: his constant economical scarcity and the premature death of his beloved ones" (59). Lastly, he points out the negligence of the authorities to investigate some evidences of his possible murder (62).


Eureka, An Ignored Work

Cortázar says in the Prologue to his translation of Poe’s prose poem into Spanish: "Eureka was written in 1847, but it is impossible to know how long it was meditated by Poe. ‘As a child,’ says Harvey Allen, ‘he had loved the stars.’" Cortázar adds: "Poe started Eureka’s writing in the sad period after the death of Virginia Clemm...The book seems to have been written quickly, as obeying an uncontrolled impulse" (Cortázar 7).

The failure of the book as a scientific work stems from several factors. First, the ambitious objective declared by Poe at the beginning: "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 Destiny" (Poe 1). A second problem likely originates from presenting philosophical, metaphysical and astronomical concepts without Poe's possession of an academic degree to support them, including a methodology not always rigorous, and sometimes intuitive. These factors contributed to the refusal of the scientific community, fully opposed to the concept of an evolutive Universe, during his time and later. Those disinclined to adopt such a universe included Humboldt, to whom Eureka was dedicated. Such a situation was foreseen by Poe, referring to Newton and Laplace: "They, as well as all the first class of mathematicians, were mathematicians solely: ---their intellect, at least, had a firmly-pronounced mathematico-physical tone. What lay not distinctly within the domain of Physics, or of Mathematics, seemed to them either Non-entity or Shadow" (Poe 23). Likewise, Poe critiques, in an ironic message from the future, the deductive and inductive methods of reasoning and concludes that "...a perfect consistency [of reasoning] can be nothing but an absolute truth" (Poe 7). To illustrate the importance of intuition, if it is supported by a consistent reasoning, he writes: "Yes!—these vital laws Kepler guessed—that is to say, he imagined them. Had he been asked to point out the deductive or inductive route by which he attained them, his reply may have been: ‘I know nothing about routes...I reached it through mere dint of intuition’." The relevance of intuition in Mathematics was recognized at the beginning of the 20th century by Poincaré, though it had been often employed well before by eminent mathematicians such as Fermat, Galois and Riemann and others, including scientists such as Pascal in cosmology, Langevin in physics, and Oswald in chemistry (Hadammard 16). The importance of intuition in the research and teaching of Modern Mathematics has also been pointed out by others (Rado 10, Korner 9). The final factor contributing to the Eureka’s neglect could have been the ignorance of the public of his time regarding Cosmology. In this way, Eureka was cast into oblivion.

Cappi asks: "Why has Eureka’s Cosmology so systematically been ignored or forgotten? For example, everywhere credit is given to Democritus for his atoms, to Aristarchus for his heliocentric system, to Kant and Wright for having considered nebulae as extragalactic systems, and so on, but nowhere is it given to the modern universe of Poe, except for his solution of the [sic] Olbers’ paradox recently pointed out by Harrison. It is possible to list different reasons. Harrison has pointed out the main problem: Metaphysics. As I have shown," Cappi continues, "a number of points in Eureka are well posed in rational terms, but Poe did not aim to a simple scientific Cosmology...the essential message of Eureka is that, to have a consistent Cosmology, we need an evolving Universe, with a beginning and an end...In Eureka, God is the cause of the origin of the Universe: ‘The Universe is a plot of God.’ God represents the original Unity, to which all our spirits will return, in a strict parallelism with the matter" (17). Such a return to Unity could be seen as an antecedent of the Omega Point theory glimpsed by Theilard de Chardin in 1916 (published only in 1956) and developed to a great extent by Tipler in 1994 (112).

It is astonishing the number of Poe’s propositions about the origin, structure and fate of the Universe which have been verified, based on the astronomical concepts of his and our own epochs. His discoveries are a testament to his mighty intuition. Before discussing some of his propositions, it would be convenient to remember the first one: "My general proposition, then, is this: -- In the Original Unity of the First Thing lies the Secondary Cause of All Things, with the Germ of their Inevitable Annihilation" (Poe 2). Next, this study will abstract of Poe's Big Bang and Big Crunch Cosmologies: In the beginning there was only God, Who, from Himself, created a primeval atom whom He ordered to disintegrate into an enormous but not infinite number of atoms which, in their turn, were irradiated in all directions filling up the (finite) Universe of Stars. This is different from Space that is infinite. Gravity then appears as a reaction to the force of diffusion, so provoking the agglomeration of atoms to assume the forms of the celestial bodies. At the same time appears the differentiation of atoms, with the necessary physical, chemical and vital consequences. Lastly, gravity represents a tendency to Unity in the long term. Such Unity requires the annihilation of the present Universe and the renascence of future Universes.

It would also be convenient to classify, in some way, the numerous propositions made by Poe (some of them original, others not at all). Next, let us examine several statements already discussed by other authors as well as some proposals apparently not analyzed to date.


Decoding Eureka: Propositions previously discussed

1) On the Origin of the Universe

Poe states: "We believe in a God" (Poe 11). And after: "I now assert that an intuition altogether irresistible, although inexpressible, forces me to the conclusion that what God originally created—that Matter which..." (Poe 13). This fragment refers, probably, to the commonly-accepted Biblical concept of the Creation and it means, together with the first-quoted sentence that, in spite of the misfortune that followed Poe for his entire life, he did not, at the end, lose his religious faith. However, a deeper analysis shows that Poe’s idea about God was not only consistent to the one Mrs. Allan early inculcated him, but one that Poe himself deeply elaborated as both philosophical and physical concept. Other probable links of Poe with the Catholic faith have recently been investigated (Burduck).

2) The Big Bang, the Expanding Universe and the Mind of God

Poe says: "We now proceed to the ultimate purpose for which we are to suppose the Particle created, that is to say...the constitution of the Universe from it, the Particle" (Poe 14). The coincidence of this concept with the title of Lemaitre's book, in which the Big Bang theory was initially published (The Primeval Atom, 1931), should give any scientist cause to wonder if it is not Poe who deserves the honor of pioneering this idea. Subsequently he adds: "I am fully warranted in announcing that the law which we have been in the habit of calling Gravity exists on account of Matter’s having being irradiated, at its origin, atomically, into a limited sphere of Space, from one, individual, unconditional, irrelative, and absolute Particle Proper, by the sole process in which it is possible to satisfy, at the same time, the two conditions, radiation and generally-equable distribution throughout the sphere, that is to say, by a force varying in direct proportion with the squares of the distances between the radiated atoms, respectively, and the Particular centre of Irradiation" (Poe 34). Cappi analyzes many of Poe’s concepts and arrives at the conclusions that: "He tried to build a ‘theory of everything’...while, based on undeniable metaphysical premises, Eureka gives us a qualitative but reasonable Newtonian model of the Universe" (4). This model "was developed only in 1934 by Milne and Mccrea" (11). Cappi also shows that Poe’s expanding model implies a concept similar to the one expressed by the Hubble’s law, first posed in 1929. This law was originally interpreted as implying that galaxies are receding from Earth at speeds proportional to their distances; lately, it has been assumed that the space itself is expanding (Sartori 301). Even the Theory of General Relativity, published by Einstein in 1916, considered the Universe as a static one. It was only in 1922 that Friedman, a Russian mathematician and fan of Poe (Cappi 12), derived the non-static solutions of Einstein equations, Lemaitre’s precedent for his Theory of the Big Bang as the origin of the Universe. But it was not until 1965, thanks to the measurement of the cosmic thermal background by Penzias and Wilson, that the expansive model imagined by Poe was proved (Munshe, 1998 4). It is to Poe’s credit that, in his intentions to frame (according to Cappi) a ‘theory of everything,' he began a discussion which is today a topic of intense cosmological research (Ferguson 11, Barrow). Even more, Poe speculates about another salient subject of inquiry: "...the establishment of what we now call ‘principles’..." (Poe 32), which demonstrates Poe’s concern with the origin of the laws of the Universe. Afterwards, he routinely refers to the Thought of God, a matter found in recent relevant thinkers’ inquiries (Russell 131, Davies).


3) Poe Anticipates Relativity

The equivalence of mass and energy, demonstrated by Einstein in his Theory of Special Relativity (1905), had been suggested by Poe in 1848, though not in a mathematical language. First, he condenses into one word, electricity, the different forms of non-gravitational energy: "To electricity—so, for the present, continuing to call it—we may not be wrong in referring the various physical appearances of light, heat and magnetism..." and then continues: "Discarding now the two equivocal terms of ‘gravitation’ and ‘electricity,’ let us adopt the most definite expressions ‘Attraction’ and ‘Repulsion.’" This means that Poe decides, at this point, to refer to the energy’s effects instead of to the energy itself, and concludes: "...there being no conceivable case in which we may not employ the term ‘matter’ and the terms ‘attraction’ and ‘repulsion’, taken together, as equivalent, and therefore convertible expressions in Logic" (Poe 18). If one is aware that, by that time, the term ‘matter’ was equivalent to ‘mass’, it is evident the similitude of Poe’s beliefs and the Einstein’s conclusion on the equivalence of mass and energy. As well, two other relativistic concepts, the space-time in Special Relativity and the geometrical interpretation of gravity in General Relativity (Brillouin 50), were anticipated by Poe when he wrote: "But the considerations through which, in this Essay, we have proceeded step by step, enable us clearly and immediately to perceive that Space and Duration are one" (Poe 63). And, previously: "We thus establish the Universe on a purely geometric basis" (Poe 16). Similar concepts had been originally proposed by Kepler in 1597 and by Descartes in 1664 (Parpart 10-13). Although Cappi refuses (3) any valid analogy between the concepts of General Relativity and Poe’s propositions (probably because Poe didn’t elaborate further), the aforementioned coincidence between Poe’s foresight of mass-energy equivalence and the Special Relativity corollary cannot be denied.

4) Poe Contemplates Other Universes

He wrote: "Telescopic observations, guided by the laws of perspective, enables us to understand that the perceptible Universe exists as a roughly spherical cluster of clusters irregularly disposed" (Poe 51). He continues "We know that there exists one cluster of clusters, a collection around which, on all sides, extends the immeasurable wilderness of Space, to all human perception, untenanted" (Poe 54). Next, Poe asks: "Have we any right to infer—let us say, rather, to imagine—an interminable succession of the ‘clusters of clusters’ or of ‘Universes’ more or less similar?" And he answers: "Let me declare only that... there does exist a limitless succession of Universes, more or less similar to that of which we have cognizance...If such clusters of clusters exist, however—and they do—it is abundantly clear that, having had no part in our origin, they have no portion in our laws. They neither attract to us, nor we them. Their material—their spirit is not ours—is not that which obtains in any part of our Universe. They can not not impress our senses or our souls...Each exists, apart and independently, in the bosom of its proper and particular God" (Poe 55). The physical possibility for the existence of other Universes was mathematically demonstrated in the 30’s with the Einstein-Rosen’s Bridges Model or Wormholes (http://www.intothecosmos.com/blackholes/) which have been graphically developed, lately, in the Penrose Diagrams (Kaufmann 56). Those bridges may also represent the path from a black hole to a white hole, i.e., the establishment of a spatial singularity where the matter eaten by the black hole surges as new matter in another Universe. The Penrose Diagrams show graphically the supposed Universes that would exist around ours and the theoretical possibility or impossibility of traveling to them, something that Poe had not anticipated.

5) Poe Foresees Modern Cosmologists’ Black Holes and The Big Crunch

Poe conjectures: "There is nothing to impede the aggregation of various unique masses, at various points of space: in other words, nothing to interfere with the accumulation of various masses, each absolutely One" (Poe 16). Then, that: "The smaller systems, in the vicinity of a larger one, would, inevitably, be drawn into still closer vicinity . A thousand would assemble here; a million there—perhaps here, again, even a billion..." (Poe 50). And, finally: "Of the still more awful Future, a not irrational analogy may guide us in framing an hypothesis. The equilibrium between the centripetal and centrifugal forces of each system, being necessarily destroyed upon attainment of a certain proximity to the nucleus of the cluster to which it belongs, there must occur, at once, a chaotic or seemingly chaotic precipitation, of the moons upon the planets, of the planets upon the suns, and of the suns upon the nuclei; and the general result of this precipitation must be the gathering of the myriad now-existing stars of the firmament into an almost infinitely less number of almost infinitely superior spheres...Then...will be glaring unimaginable suns. But all of this will be merely a climactic magnificence foreboding the great End" (Poe 73). It is evident that Poe describes here the formation of a Universal Black Hole, which he considered the destiny and end of this Universe, an end that has been recently named as the Big Crunch. Laplace had predicted, in 1793, the existence of dark bodies, possessing the properties of today known as black holes, but he didn’t mention their origins nor any relationship with the final collapse (Grantz 5). Poe proposes also the existence of dark matter when he writes: "We know that there exist non-luminous suns, that is to say, suns whose existence we determine through the movement of others, but whose luminosity is not sufficient to impress us" (Poe 44). However, Poe doesn’t attribute to these remote suns the gravitational avidity of Laplace’s dark bodies. It is assumed that the dark matter, that includes dark bodies, black holes and the "strange particles" also called WIMPs (Narlikar 195), constitutes most of the matter in our Universe. The existence of black holes was verified no sooner than 1970 and it is estimated that there exist 100 million, in the Milky Way alone (Wilson 37). Although Poe doesn’t fully accept the existence of a massive dark body in the center of our Galaxy, he admits in a footnote that: "Of course, if no great central orb exists now in our cluster, such will exist hereafter. Whenever existing, it will be merely the nucleus of the consolidation" (Poe 67). Such a dark body has just been discovered in the center of the Milky Way, as a probably gigantic black hole, equivalent to 2500 million times the solar mass (Noticias de la Ciencia y la Tecnología, I, # 100).

6) Successive Universes

Just after the "great End" already mentioned, Poe continues: "Of this End the new Genesis described can be but a very partial postponement." Near to the conclusion of Eureka, Poe asks: "...are we not, indeed, more than justified in entertaining a belief–let us say, rather, in indulging a hope—that the processes we have here ventured to contemplate, will be renewed forever, and forever, and forever; a novel Universe swelling into existence, and then subsiding into nothingness, at every throb of the Heart Divine?" (Poe 75). The hypothesis of simultaneous and successive Universes had been suggested by Anaximander in the 6th Century B.C. However, the possibility of the existence of cyclical Universes appears as a physical theory only after the aforementioned solutions obtained by Friedman, specifically the one corresponding to a positive curvature of the spacial part of the space-time, which generates a closed and cyclical Universe (Sartori 316). This alternative has a higher probability to occur if the abundance of the dark matter, foreseen by Laplace and Poe, is high enough.

 Many of these propositions have been discoursed by classic thinkers such as Paul Valéry and Sir Arthur Eddington who said that "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" (Quinn 555). Poe’s precepts have also been analyzed in more recent publications, such as the aforementioned papers by Cappi (who analyzed many of Poe’s physical and mathematical concepts), by Munnshe (who composed a paper on main cosmological Poe’s propositions), by Beaver (who edited a collection of Poe's works, including a chronology and thorough analysis of pre-Eureka science), and by ***Grantz (who created a web essay about Eureka, which contains many illustrations and space telescope images, as well as links to other Poe works and sites).


Decoding Eureka: "New" Propositions

7) Extra-Solar Planets

"Every shining speck in the firmament—says Poe—is, no doubt, a luminous sun, resembling our own, at least in its general features, and having in attendance upon it a greater or less number of planets, greater or less...which, nevertheless, revolve, moon-attended, about their starry centres, in obedience to the principles just detailed..." (Poe 56). This astronomic prediction about extra-solar planets had, as antecedents, the descriptions of Epicurus in the 4th Century BC and Giordano Bruno in the 16th Century AD. Unlike Aristotle, Epicurus maintained that the Universe is infinite and, therefore, it must be comprised of an infinite number of worlds. Bruno profited from Copernicus's heliocentric theory (1530) to suggest in 1584, that "...the earth and innumerable other planets and stars are noble and animated bodies moving in an infinite space" (Nelson 635). Gravitational confirmation of extra-solar planets was performed in 1995 by Mayor and Queloz in Switzerland. They discovered a planet orbiting the star Pegasi-51. Afterwards, Marcy, Butler and other American astronomers, arrived at the discovery of 26 extra-solar planets. However, optical confirmations occurred only at the end of 1999 thanks to the labor of two groups: one, led by Marcy and Henry, saw a planet orbiting the star HD209458, distant 153 light-years from Earth; the other, the Isaac Newton Group (from Great Britain, the Netherlands and Spain), observed an extra-solar planet at a distance of 55 light-years, that has been named Millenium. The 29 new extra-solar planets discovered to date, rank from 0.4 to 11.0 times the mass of Jupiter (the biggest of the solar planets). It is particularly noticeable Poe’s phrase "a greater or less number of planets," since 3 of them have effectively been found orbiting one star: Upsilon of Andromeda, 44 light-years from the Earth. (References and links on these topics are listed in the Works Cited under the item Noticias de la Ciencia y la Tecnología, I, # 93 and # 96).

8) The Non-Existence of the Material Ether

Poe comments about the gradual decrease in the orbit of the Enck’s comet, postulating: "All this was strictly logical, admitting the medium of ether; but this ether was assumed, most illogically, on the ground that no other mode than the one spoken of could be discovered, of accounting for the observed decrease in the orbit of the comet" (Poe 70). On analyzing the variations in the Moon and Earth’s orbits, he concludes that: "The facts thus demonstrated do away, of course, with all necessity for supposing an ether and with all apprehension of the system’s instability, on the ether’s account" (Poe 71). The fact that a poet would have dared to doubt openly the ether hypothesis, sustained by physicists as eminent as Young and Fresnel, a hypothesis supported by Maxwell even in 1865 (Magie 534), implied an amazing degree of audacity that surely contributed to the refusal of the scientific community to accept Poe’s astronomical conjecture. However, the physical proof of the non-existence of ether was obtained 40 years later than Poe’s speculations by means of an experiment based on the assumption of the ether’s existence, which suggested two very interesting expectations: i.) Light waves should travel with a definite speed (c) with respect to the static ether; then, classically, the velocity of light respect to a moving body (such as the Earth) should have a value different from (c). ii.) An absolute velocity of the Earth with respect to the ether should be deduced from measurements on light waves traveling trough the ether. The experiment to confirm these predictions was designed and performed in 1887 by A. Michelson (the first U.S. citizen to win the Nobel Prize, in 1907) and his associate E. Morley. However, the experiment did not produce the expected results, thus contributing to the following obverse conclusions: i) the velocity of the Earth, relative to the ether, is nil; ii) the velocity of light has the same value (c) in all inertial systems; iii) ether doesn’t exist (Blanchard 232, Krane 22).

 Regarding the atomic model, Poe formulates some interesting propositions:

9) Chemical Affinity

Poe establishes, between atoms, differences in species, forms, sizes, and distances, proposing that: "Difference of size, for example, will at once be brought about through the tendency of one atom to a second, in preference to a third, on account of particular inequidistance" (Poe 15). This means that he suggested the chemical affinity concept to be a function of atomic characteristics. The chemical affinity concept was proposed for the first time by Barchusen in 1698 (Vitoria 32), and was also considered by Newton in 1701, as a chemical attraction phenomenon similar to the gravitational one. (Moore 167, Parpart 16). It was only in 1812 that Berzelius proposed that chemical combinations depend on electrostatic attractions, a concept subsequently included by Poe in Eureka. Research performed from 1863 to 1878 defined macroscopic factors of chemical combinations. It was not until 1917 that, with the new models of atomic bonding (Moore 518), the dependence of chemical affinity on atomic structure began to be articulated. At present, chemical affinity remains as a qualitative concept related to a very important quantitative one: free energy--that is, the driving force of a chemical reaction. Anyway, Poe’s propositions on this topic proved conceptually valid.


10) Molecular Structure

Poe says: "The amount of electricity developed on the approximation of two bodies, is proportional to the difference between the respective sums (of electricity) of the atoms of which the bodies are composed" (Poe 17). As such, this definition may be applied to the concept presently known as energy of ionization of an ionic(a) pair, that is, the difference between the ionization potential of the cation and the electronic affinity of the anion that will form an ionic molecule. This energy of ionization, added to the electrostatic energy developed when the ions approach, integrates the binding energy of the molecule, which reaches its maximum when the interatomic distance has a certain equilibrium value. (Emeleus 42). This concept was foreseen by Poe when he observed: "...we thus see the necessity for a repulsion of limited capacity--a separate something which, on withdrawal of the diffusive Volition, shall at the same time allow the approach, and forbid the junction, of the atoms; suffering them infinitely to approximate, while denying them positive contact; in a word, having the power – up to a certain epoch – of preventing their coalition, but no ability to interfere with their coalescence in any respect or degree" (Poe 16). He also states: "That the repulsive something actually exists, we see. Man neither employs, nor knows, a force sufficient to bring two atoms into contact. This is but the well-established proposition of the impenetrability of matter...The design of the repulsion...I have endeavored to show but...have religiously abstained...I feel, in a word, that here the God has interposed..." (Poe 17). In fact, it was not yet known in Poe’s time the magnitude of the mutual electrostatic repulsion of atomic nuclei nor the concepts involved in the Pauli’s Exclusion Principle(b). So, it appears that the Divine Volition was the only resort available to Poe to explain the impenetrability of matter and the impossibility for the atomic coalition. Furthermore, he repeats a previous and interesting concept: "...what I have spoken of as a repulsive influence prescribing limits to the (immediate) satisfaction of the tendency (to Unity), will be understood as that which we have been in the practice of designating now as heat, now as magnetism, now as electricity, displaying our ignorance of its awful character..." (Poe 17). Really, some of these forms of non-gravitational energy may, in some way, be considered as opposed to gravity and to matter’s agglomeration. Otherwise, they are now driven to such an extent as to overcome the impenetrability of matter, even permitting the above mentioned coalition (or fusion) of atoms to be increasingly controlled by man (IAEA 48).


11) Planetary Model of the Atom

Poe believes, "It is not that the atoms, as we see them, are divided or that they are complex in their relations—but that they are inconceivably divided and unutterably complex" (Poe 21). To express such an idea in 1848, without any experimental proof, when the theory of the indivisible atom prevailed from Democritus (400 BC) to Dalton (1807 AC) and long afterwards, reflects another audacity of Poe. It was necessary to arrive at the end of the 19th Century to begin to perceive, thanks to the works of Becquerel, Curie, Roentgen and Thomson, the atomic complexity of which Poe, somehow, was aware. As a corollary of this, Poe proposes, speaking of other solar systems: "Let us now, expanding our conceptions, look upon each of these systems as in itself an atom; which in fact it is, when we consider it as but one of the countless myriads of systems which constitute the Universe" (Poe 50). And, finally: "Recurring, then, to a previous suggestion, let us understand the systems – let us understand each star, with its attendant planets – as but a Titanic atom existing in space..." (Poe 72). This Poe's sketch corresponds exactly to the planetary model of the atom, composed by a positive, central nucleus encircled by lighter, negative particles (electrons), a model proved by Rutherford in 1911 (Krane 154), perfected later by Bohr and Sommerfeld and universally accepted ever since.


12) A Strange Comparison

Lastly, in this chemical exploration of Poe, it must be pointed out the comparison the poet makes between the numbers of atoms and stars: "...in a wilderness of atoms so numerous that those which go to the composition of a cannon-ball, exceed, probably, in mere point of number, all the stars which go to the constitution of the Universe" (Poe 20). A simple calculation shows that, in a 10 kilograms iron-ball, there are about 1026 atoms of iron. Accordingly to a not-too-recent estimation (Dickinson 23), the so-called Local Group (which includes the Milky Way together the galaxies of Andromeda, Triangle, Cloud of Magallanes and M110), has less than 1012 stars. Therefore, it would be necessary to exist more than 1014 Groups, similar to the Local one, for the Universe to have an amount of stars equivalent to that of iron atoms in a cannon-ball. Such a situation is highly improbable due to the limited volume, age and density of the actual Universe of Stars, corresponding to the Big Bang Cosmology(c). The strangeness of Poe’s proposition resides in what follows: In order to calculate the number of atoms it is indispensable to know the Avogadro’s Number. Although Avogadro presented his Hypothesis in 1811, he didn’t include such a Number in the original paper (Knickerbocker 177). Furthermore, his work remained unknown until 1860, when Cannizzaro made it public, but the Number’s value continued to be unknown. An approximate value of the Number(d) had been estimated by 1900 (Blanchard 61), but it was exactly determined only around 1920 by Millikan. Thus, Poe could not have known the famous Number. Also, the knowledge of the population of the stars in the heavens contained in the references of Poe’s contemporaries (Nichol, Hershel and Humboldt) was also, necessarily, very limited. How, then, did Poe imagine such a proposition?.



This analysis suggests new questions, for example:

How did Poe perceive the mass-energy equivalence?

How did Poe imagine a modern concept about the fusion of atoms?

How did he guess the atom’s complexity?

To end this "cluster" of remarkable predictions of Poe, it may be opportune to include at this point two additional predictions related to Eureka itself. Poe was so convinced about the transcendence of his concepts that he wrote to a friend just before editing Eureka (Cappi 2): "What I have propounded will (in good time) revolutionize the world of Physical and Metaphysical science. I say it calmy—but I say it." However, faced with a presentiment concerning any future rejection to his scientific work, he decided to take refuge where he felt safe: in his literary prestige. Thus, he wrote at the end of Eureka’s Preface: "What I here propound is true—therefore it cannot die—or if by any means it be now trodden down so that it die, it will ‘rise again to the Life Everlasting’. Nevertheless, it is as a Poem only that I wish this work to be judged after I am dead." (Poe 1). Significantly, Poe knew that "Poetry and Truth are One" (Poe 69).

Even if the scientific legacy belonging to Poe has not been granted to date, still, most of his critics accept his literary talent. Perhaps this and other expositions of his scientific work could serve to affirm Poe's own thesis: that intuition, with a consistent reasoning, may also conduce to the Truth.



a) An ionic or heteropolar molecule is composed by two ions (i.e. two atoms or two groups of atoms which have acquired opposite electric charges) in such a proportion that the molecule be electrically neutral. The atoms positively charged are called cations and the negative ones, anions. The energy required to remove an electron from an atom to obtain a cation is referred to as the ionization potential. The energy liberated when an atom captures an electron and becomes an anion is known as electron affinity. The difference between both energies is the energy of ionization of the ionic pair, i.e., the net energy involved in the generation of the ions from the free atoms. Besides, the attraction of those opposed charges implies an electrostatic potential energy, liberated as far as the ions approach to integrate a molecule; but, if they come too close, the reciprocal repulsion of their internal electron orbits (electron cores) appears (see Note b). The algebraic sum of all of these terms gets its maximum value when the ions reach an equilibrium distance. Such a maximum is defined as the binding energy, i.e., the energy required to dissociate the molecule and obtain again the neutral atoms.

b) The atomic planetary model implies the "quantization" of energy levels, i.e., the assignment of discrete energy values to every one of the orbits where the electrons are rotating around the nucleus. Additional mechanical and magnetic parameters contribute to the total energy of every one of the electrons. The Pauli’s Exclusion Principle states that, in an atom, there can not exist two electrons in the same energetic state. This limits, absolutely, the number of electrons that may co-exist on each level and limits, therefore, the overlapping of orbits when two atoms approach. In fact, it would be required an enormous amount of energy to remove the electrons from the internal orbits of one atom to make room (Krane 374) for the electrons of the "invader" atom. This effect, the core repulsion (Blatt 205), is the main reason for the impenetrability of matter. So, in chemical reactions, only external electrons participate. Otherwise, in many nuclear reactions such as that of fusion, very high energies are applied to remove all of the electrons from the atoms and to force the repelling positive nuclei to interact.

c) The widely accepted Big Bang model concerning the origin and expansion of the Universe has recently been questioned by eminent cosmologists, such as Narlikar, Hoyle and Burbidge (Narlikar 200), who propose the so-called Quasi-Steady-State Cosmology. This assumes an infinitely old and expanding Universe, where matter is continuously created from negative energy stored in a creation-field.

d) The estimated values of Avogadro’s Number, by 1900, ranged from 1023 to 1024 .

The value assigned at present is 6.023x1023 (atoms/atom.gram), (Ladd 77). This is the number of atoms contained in an amount of a substance whose mass (in grams) is numerically equal to his atomic weight. For example, if the atomic weight of iron is 55.84, it means that 55.84 grams of iron contain 6.023x1023 atoms.

Works Cited


* Juan Lartigue G. is a full-time professor at the Nuclear Chemistry Department, Faculty of Chemistry, National University of México.

** The quotes taken from texts in Spanish and French were freely translated into English by the author.

*** The author is indebted to David Grantz for his patient correction and editing labour, as well as his wise guidance in the elaboration of this essay.