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Archive for Sunday, January 16, 2005

Poe edition divulges sources of ideas

January 16, 2005

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If you remember Edgar Allan Poe, it's probably because of these lines from his poem "The Raven":

"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary ..."

Poor Poe did a lot of pondering during his life.

Now besides the "Raven," you may know Poe for his horror stories.

But you've probably never heard of "Eureka," which he published a year before he died.

"Eureka" is Poe's vision of the past and future of the universe compiled from many sources, including his reading of newspaper accounts about astronomical discoveries and the writings of J.P. Nichol, the Carl Sagan of his day.

Late last year, Stuart and Susan Levine, now retired from Kansas University, published their footnoted edition of Poe's "Eureka" with the University of Illinois Press.

Stuart Levine says "Eureka" is Poe's effort to tie knowledge about the history and nature of the cosmos to the widely held 19th-century idea that the material world was shot through with the divine.

The new edition reveals the sources of Poe's ideas and their connection to his other writings.

A reception for the Levines is scheduled for 3 p.m. Jan. 26 at KU's Spencer Research Library.

Stuart was a KU English professor and Susan an administrator in the Graduate School office.

Poe's credentials as a cosmologist were few, though he did take engineering courses during a year at West Point and was a serious student of the universe.

In the 1840s, that was a much smaller task than today. At that time the universe and solar system were pretty much synonymous, according to KU astronomy professor Bruce Twarog.

The Levines invited Twarog to help them gauge Poe's science.

History shows that J.P. Nichol lectured in New York a week before Poe himself had scheduled a lecture on cosmology. The night of Poe's talk was marred by a blizzard that held down the crowd.

Poe's lecture ran more than two hours and became the basis for "Eureka."

Some of Poe's ideas were right, Twarog says. For example, Poe's universe was born from a small particle that exploded -- an idea in harmony with the Big Bang theory. By contrast, most of Poe's contemporaries thought the universe was infinitely old.

Poe believed the universe was destined to collapse back in on itself because of gravity. Until 1998, cosmologists shared that belief. Then the discovery of "dark energy" changed all that.

It's now believed the universe will continue to spread out forever.

The way Poe went about envisioning the universe is interesting. Levine notes that in Poe's fiction, a detective doesn't endlessly sift through the evidence to put together a case. He goes into the study and looks for inspiration to help him discover the truth.

In a similar fashion, Poe, working from a platform of astronomical knowledge, projects a vision.

The Levines write that, despite Poe's errors about the cosmos, he "was thinking in the right directions, certainly speculating creatively."

To us Poe's quest to describe the past and future of the universe may seem naive. We leave cosmology to cosmologists -- and just about everything else, in fact, to experts.

This has led to enormous gains in our knowledge of ourselves and our world.

The size of those gains means that we need what both Poe and his fictional detective needed: space and time to ponder what we've learned and inspiration to piece together its meaning.

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