The POE-t who beat the Astronomers to it !

Astronomers, from the late 16th century onwards, who believed that the universe was infinite in age and extent, couldn’t understand why the night sky wasn’t an uninterrupted blaze of light. If the universe was infinite in extent, and had an infinite number of stars, then every line of sight would lead to a star, and there would be no dark patches anywhere. Some astronomers thought that the light from very distant stars might get tired out, and give up trying to reach us. Others thought there might be mysterious dark objects in outer space that got in the way of the light, or that there was an equally mysterious ‘substance’ known as ‘ether’, which absorbed it.

Enter Edgar Alan Poe (1809 – 1849), short-lived American writer, poet, editor and literary critic, best known perhaps for his detective stories, and gothic horror tales. In an essay entitled “Eureka: a Prose Poem”, he suggested that the vast extent of the universe didn’t allow some light enough time to have reached us. In his own words, “the only mode in which 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”. He has, of course, been proved entirely correct.

Fascinatingly, he further suggested that the universe began life as a “primordial particle”, which expanded by “irradiating spherically” in all directions as new atoms were created. Now that sounds suspiciously like the “big bang”, which gave rise to our rapidly expanding universe, and further supported the idea that the light of innumerable stars has indeed not yet had time enough to reach planet earth. Well done, Edgar Alan Poe.

We tend to keep people separate from each other in supposedly very different boxes – scientific, philosophical, religious, literary, musical, poetic, artistic and so on. But history has repeatedly demonstrated that very many of them have benefitted from bursts of creative imagination, and shafts of sudden illumination, which emerged from the great, transcendent beyond, and which were pregnant with far wider implications. We all ought to respect and listen to each other far more than we do. Away with ‘pride and prejudice’ in every area of life and thought (except, of course, for that everlastingly delightful book – ok, and the classic BBC adaptation).  

[ With thanks to Stephen C. Meyer, “Return of the God Hypothesis”, HarperOne ]

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