The Big Bang: who first suggested it?

The phrase ‘Big Bang’ was coined in 1949 by astronomer Fred Hoyle as a label for a cosmological model of the universe, although one with which he happened to disagree. However, the theory itself had an earlier origin.

Many think that George Lemaitre, a Belgian Roman Catholic priest, astronomer and professor of physics at the Université Catholique de Louvain was the first to suggest cosmic expansion. In his 1927 report, ‘A homogeneous universe of constant mass and growing radius accounting for the radial velocity of extragalactic nebulae’, he proposed that the universe expanded from the finite static state imagined by Einstein. But only in 1931, at a meeting of the British Association on the relation between the physical universe and spirituality (sic), did he propose that the universe originated in a ’primeval atom’ (but this was 2 years after Edwin Hubble had demonstrated cosmic expansion).

Many think it was mathematician Alexander Friedmann who, unknown to Lemaitre, proposed a similar solution to Einstein’s equations in 1922.

However, what seems to be little known is the fact that both Friedmann and Leamaitre were forestalled by the American writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe

In 1848 (79 years before Lemaitre and 74 years before Friedmann), he wrote Eureka: A Prose Poem, also subtitled ‘An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe’. It was his last major work and his longest non-fiction work at nearly 40,000 words. It was based on a lecture he gave on the 3rd of February 1848 in the Society Library in New York entitled ‘On The Cosmography of the Universe’. He died the following year.

Poe dedicated the work to Alexander von Humboldt, whose book Kosmos he must have read, at least the first two volumes. It was Humboldt who coined the word ‘cosmos’ (from the Greek kosmos) in the sense that modern cosmology uses it, to describe everything that exists in the universe, or the universe itself. In the volumes Poe must have read, he examined what was then known of the Milky Way, cosmic nebulae, and planets. The first volume was so popular that it sold out in two months.

Eureka describes Poe’s intuitive conception of the nature of the universe with no reference to any scientific work done to reach his conclusions (well there were none). His general proposition was ‘Because Nothing was, therefore All Things are’.

That is a bit vague, but it seems to suggest that the universe came out of nothing! Hasn’t modern science come to that conclusion? Indeed, he proposed that it had an origin: Poe contended that the universe filled with matter after a single, high-energy particle exploded and that, since the energy of the explosion is pushing matter outward, the universe must be expanding.

A reviewer in the New York Review of Books in February last year observed that [1]:

‘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’ [i.e. ‘time’] 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, and that our present universe may be one in a series.’

Apart from suggesting a Big Crunch, Poe was the first to explain Olbers’ Paradox (the night sky is dark despite the vast number of stars in the universe); I wrote about this in the Journal 8 years ago [2]. Poe claimed, as many do now, that the universe is not old enough to fill the sky with light. The universe may be infinite in size, he thought, (we think that now don’t we?) but there hasn’t been enough time since the universe began for starlight, travelling at the speed of light, to reach us from the farthest reaches of space. A Wikipedia page on the Paradox recognises Poe’s priority in this matter.

Response to Eureka was overwhelmingly unfavourable and the lecture on which it was based received negative reviews such as ‘hyperbolic nonsense’, but one newspaper called in ‘a noble effort’. Many were bored by the lecture which evidently was too long and rambling. However, Poe considered Eureka to be his masterpiece. He believed that the work would immortalize him because it would be proven to be true. Indeed, much of what he claimed has been verified and some, like Arthur Eddington, praised it. Albert Einstein called it ‘a beautiful achievement of an unusually independent mind’. 

Eureka was published in a small hardcover edition in March 1848 by Wiley & Putnam priced at 75 cents. Poe persuaded George Putnam, to publish Eureka after claiming the work was more important than Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity (Newton did not discover gravity, but he did explain it)! Putnam paid Poe $14 (3-4 hundred dollars today) for the work. Poe suggested an initial printing of at least one million copies, but Putnam settled on 750, of which 500 were sold that year.

The book can still be bought in various editions and it can also be read online [3]. The National Library of Scotland has two copies, one of them the original 1848 edition, apparently once owned by the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

What Poe suggested in this inspired work, with no antecedents, except perhaps Humboldt, is astonishing in its prescience. He deserves more recognition for his insights.

Finally, Poe has a Scottish connection. He was briefly at school in Irvine in 1815 when the Allans, his foster family, visited Britain. Let’s celebrate him.

References:

      1. The New York Review of Books, February 5, 2015 – “On Edgar Allan Poe” by Marilynne Robinson
      2. ASE Journal No. 57, September 2008 – “Why is it dark at night?” by Steuart Campbell
      3. Eureka by Edgar Allan Poe, 1848. For an analysis of the work, see Eureka, an annotated edition by Stuart and Susan F Levine, University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Steuart Campbell

This article is based on an illustrated talk given to the ASE by Steuart Campbell on 4 November 2016. Steuart is a member of the ASE and a regular contributor to the Journal.
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Posted on 24/11/2016, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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