A post from John Horgan with the title Did Edgar Allan Poe Foresee Modern Physics and Cosmology? quickly got my attention. Horgan writes in response to an essay by Marilynne Robinson in the February 5 New York Review of Books where Poe’s book-length prose poem Eureka was brought to his attention. Eureka was written by Poe shortly before his death in 1849. Horgan tells us:
According to Robinson, Eureka has always been “an object of ridicule,” too odd even for devotees of Poe, the emperor of odd. But Robinson contends that Eureka is actually “full of intuitive insight”–and anticipates ideas remarkably similar to those of modern physics and cosmology.
Eureka, she elaborates, “describes the origins of the universe in a single particle, from which ‘radiated’ the atoms of which all matter is made. Minute dissimilarities of size and distribution among these atoms meant that the effects of gravity caused them to accumulate as matter, forming the physical universe. This by itself would be a startling anticipation of modern cosmology, if Poe had not also drawn striking conclusions from it, for example that space and ‘duration’ are one thing, that there might be stars that emit no light, that there is a repulsive force that in some degree counteracts the force of gravity, that there could be any number of universes with different laws simultaneous with ours, that our universe might collapse to its original state and another universe erupt from the particle it would have become, that our present universe may be one in a series.
Horgan acknowledges the resemblance, but challenges the soundness of Poe’s thoughts with an excerpt from Poe’s theory of creation.
“Let us now endeavor to conceive what Matter must be, when, or if, in its absolute extreme of Simplicity. Here the Reason flies at once to Imparticularity—to a particle—to 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, and not indivisible only because He who created it, by dint of his Will, can by an infinitely less energetic exercise of the same Will, as a matter of course, divide it. Oneness, then, is all that I predicate of the originally created Matter; but I propose to show that this Oneness is a principle abundantly sufficient to account for the constitution, the existing phenomena and the plainly inevitable annihilation of at least the material Universe.”
But this just made me more interested because that particle “of one kind,” “of one character,” “of one nature,” “positively a particle at all points…individual, undivided, and not divisible,” reminded me of Leibniz’s monad (1714). Britannica’s philosophy pages summarize Leibniz’s idea it nicely:
Since we experience the actual world as full of physical objects, Leibniz provided a detailed account of the nature of bodies. As Descartes had correctly noted, the essence of matter is that it is spatially extended. But since every extended thing, no matter how small, is in principle divisible into even smaller parts, it is apparent that all material objects are compound beings made up of simple elements. But from this Leibniz concluded that the ultimate constitutents of the world must be simple, indivisible, and therefore unextended, particles—dimensionless mathematical points. So the entire world of extended matter is in reality constructed from simple immaterial substances, monads, or entelechies.
It is true, as Horgan points out, that Eureka “does indeed evoke some modern scientific ideas, but in the same blurry way that Christian or Eastern theologies do.” But no attention is being given to the fact that, in that blurry resemblance, is the surprising presence of a quasi-mathematical conceptualization of things:
“The assumption of absolute Unity in the primordial Particle includes that of infinite divisibility. Let us conceive the Particle, then, to be only not totally exhausted by diffusion into Space. From the one Particle, as a center, 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.”
This is a kind of mathematical thinking happening outside the disciplines of mathematics or science. It’s not precise. It’s not designed to do what mathematics does. But the words signify mathematical things. Why? It’s not clear where the inspiration for this impassioned/poetic/intuitional expression lies, and that’s exactly why it’s interesting. This is not the only example of a kind of literary mathematics. Another example that comes to mind was discussed in a piece from David Castelvecchi in 2012 – Dante’s Universe and Ours.
Dante’s universe, then, can be interpreted as an extreme case of non-Euclidean geometry, one in which concentric spheres don’t just grow at a different pace than their diameters, but at some point they actually stop growing altogether and start shrinking instead. That’s crazy, you say. And yet, modern cosmology tells us that that’s the structure of the cosmos we actually see in our telescopes…
Of course, Dante lived five centuries before any mathematicians ever dreamed of notions of curved geometries. We may never know if his strange spheres were a mathematical premonition or esoteric symbolism or simply a colorful literary device.
I suspect we won’t fully appreciate what’s happening within these literary mathematical ideas without a fuller appreciation of what mathematics is.