Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!"

"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.'"
-Preface to "Eureka"

Albert Einstein is one of the most illustrious people ever to critique Poe's magnum opus "Eureka." Unfortunately, his opinions of the work--which appear in two letters to Poe collector Richard Gimbel and two more to biographer Arthur H. Quinn--are disappointingly limited and contradictory. It should also be noted that, perhaps unsurprisingly, Einstein's focus was merely on the strictly scientific aspects of Poe's work, largely ignoring "Eureka's" even more compelling spiritual elements.
Albert Einstein and Edgar Allan Poe's Eureka
In December 1933, Einstein answered what was evidently a request from Gimbel to comment on "Eureka." He wrote a brief, but friendly note, agreeing to read "the story by the master," and pass on his opinion. The next month, he wrote again, saying he had "partly studied" "Eureka," but doubted he would be able to make a thorough analysis of the work, "in spite of all the attraction which radiates from this wonderful man." He described the opening section as "a very beautiful achievement of an unusually independent mind," but deprecated Poe's cosmogony as inadequate, due to the limited scientific advances of his era. (As Poe anticipated certain of Einstein's own concepts, this is somewhat ironic.)

Seven years later, Arthur Quinn also asked the scientist for his views of Poe's masterwork, as part of Quinn's research for his book about the poet. Mysteriously, Einstein's letters to him reveal a much more negative attitude towards both "Eureka" and Poe personally. In June 1940, he wrote Quinn that he had read "Eureka" some years back, but remembered little about it, except that it was to be "valued more from the artistic than from the scientific standpoint." He asked Quinn to send him the work, if the biographer wished a more detailed response.

Two months later, he wrote that after looking through the copy of "Eureka" Quinn had provided, he realized he was mistaken--that he had never read it before, and he now found the book "a bad disappointment." He found the first part clever in some ways, but ultimately weak in many scientific respects. The latter half of the book, where Poe described his own theories of the universe, was, Einstein sniffed, like "the scientific crank-letters I receive every day." He attributed this to Poe's "pathological personality" depriving the poet of the ability for self-criticism.

As Poe scholar René van Slooten noted, Einstein's critique of "Eureka" was itself full of flaws, and he also pointed out, as reason for Einstein's sudden hostility, that he was at that time at odds with Alexander Friedmann and Georges Lemaître, two scientists who had taken inspiration from Poe's writings. It is also undoubtedly true that "Eureka's" strong religiosity was anathema to the strictly materialist mind of the famed physicist. It is assumed that a good part of Einstein's suddenly antipathetic attitude was due to his increasing tension over the advent of World War II. However, I suspect there is even more to it than that. From Einstein's comments, I found myself wondering if he had actually even studied "Eureka" thoroughly, and it is clear that whatever he did read rather baffled him. As heretical as it may be to suggest the fabled genius had his limitations, I suspect "Eureka" so irritated him simply because he failed to understand it.
Edgar Allan Poe Sonnet to ScienceIn any case, it is obvious that Poe himself believed that "Eureka's" true importance lies in its philosophy, not the literal cosmogony. However, even his scientific claims have experienced a renaissance in recent years, as it becomes increasingly obvious that Poe was not limited to his era scientifically, but was actually in many ways far ahead of his time. Whatever flaws "Eureka" may have, no serious modern authority would dream of dismissing it as a mere "crank-letter."

Einstein himself may not be as infallible as is commonly assumed. If recent scientific experiments suggesting that neutrinos (subatomic particles) travel faster than light are verified, it would require a revision of Einstein's special theory of relativity--one of the cornerstones of modern physics.

In such a changing and uncertain universe, who can say with any true confidence where and how Poe was wrong?

Note: More about Poe and Einstein, including facsimiles of some of the letters quoted here, can be found at that fascinating work-in-progress, "The Eureka Project." This post is obviously heavily indebted to the site.