Text: William Hand Browne, “Poe’s ‘Eureka’ and Recent Scientific Speculations,” New Eclectic Magazine, vol. V, August 1869, pp. 190-199


­[page 190, continued:]





It has been the peculiar hard fortune of Edgar A. Poe that he has not only been most persistently and unscrupulously maligned by his enemies, but he has been (in our opinion) but imperfectly estimated by his friends. All who write in his praise reserve their warmest eulogies for his poetic genius; and it is possible that he may himself have considered this his greatest gift. And yet there are two faculties ­[page 191:] which he possessed in more singular perfection than the poetic faculty, be our estimate of his poetry what it may. These are — first and least, the power of expressing his thoughts, however involved, subtle, or profound, with such precision, such lucidity, and withal with such simplicity of style, that we hardly know where to look for its equal: certainly nowhere among American writers. And this probably had its origin in his second gift: in the keen, clear, swift analytical power of his thought, combined — which is the rarity — with a vast, comprehensive grasp of generalities. He had, in remarkable excellence, the scientific mind: the imagination which reaches ahead, and seizes far distant results and relations combined with the instinct of the intellect that catches at a glance the whole chain of consequences leading to them. Had other circumstances favored, it is more than probable that Poe would have been known to the world as one of its foremost men of science and most brilliant discoverers; and perhaps his friends might have known that he sometimes amused his leisure by writing strange, weird, beautiful little poems.

In speaking of his analytical powers, of course we have not in view such pieces as The Gold Bug, or The Murders in the Rue Morgue, as there is no particular merit in guessing a riddle you have made yourself, nor did Poe claim any; nor such as his Rationale of Verse, where in connection with just and original remarks on English versification, of which he was a master, we find a tissue of the merest absurdity about the classical measures, of which he knew nothing. We refer specially to his remarkable production called Eureka, in which, as we conceive, he has anticipated some of the latest and most important results of scientific investigation.

This essay, brief as it is, must be conceded to be one of the boldest speculations ever conceived by the brain of man: it is nothing less than a succinct cosmogony and cosmotely; or an attempt to fathom the principles upon which the whole material universe was created from nothing, and by the action of which it will finally return to nothing. In many parts, this paper, of necessity, becomes metaphysical, and again it sometimes even transcends the domain of metaphysics; but it is only with the scientific part that we at present have to do. The line of thought pursued may be succinctly traced as follows: —

Looking forth into the universe, we perceive infinite forms undergoing infinite changes. We at once distinguish that which is changed from that which changes it, and by a broad generalisation we call that which is changed, Matter, and that which changes it, Force. Force again, we perceive, may be divided into two diametrically opposed forms, or energies: the energy which brings or holds atoms or masses together, and the energy which removes or keeps them apart. From the combination of these two in various proportions, result all the complicated phenomena of motion or change; but thus simply considered, their action is simple and in accordance with a definite law. These forces are everywhere simultaneously present: we know of no substance, nor any condition of substance, from which either is excluded. The most attenuated gas is ponderable: the densest solid is elastic. These then: — matter, with the two forces, are the foundation ­[page 192:] of fact which the hypothesis is to account for, in the simplest possible manner. Non-scientific readers may bear in mind that we are not speaking of the creation of the world from chaos, concerning which they may possibly have views of their own; but of the creation of matter itself from nihility.

I.  The simplest conceivable creation of matter — and that therefore which we have the best ground for assuming — is that of a particle; one homogeneous absolute particle. By an exercise of the Almighty will, this particle is diffused through space — not infinite but limited space. The force employed (though it may be called infinite in comparison with measurable forces) is not infinite, or the atoms would have been carried to infinite distances, and the dispersion would last forever. At a certain limit the diffusion ceases. Reaction sets in: the atoms dispersed through space, now tend back to their original unity. But we have said that the diffusion ceased, not that the diffusive force was annihilated or withdrawn. In that case the return to unity would have been instantaneous — literally instantaneous, as this would be an act lying out of Time. The radiating force is present in every atom, but overmastered by the reacting or attractive force; as — to use a rough comparison — gravity does not cease to act on a ball projected upward, though for the time it be impelled in a contrary direction. The return of the diffused atoms to unity is therefore not a simultaneous, but a retarded action, and hence arises the successiveness of phenomena, or what we call the mode of Time.

II.  The attractive action is not merely a tendency to a common centre, but also the tendency of every atom to every other atom, from which indeed a concentration necessarily results. But the atoms are not distributed through space with absolute uniformity, which would result in entire homogeneity of substance, presenting but the single phenomenon of concentration. The atoms being unequally distributed, it results that the nearest draw soonest together, forming groups, or substances and masses. Hence follow unequal velocities, some being accelerated and some impeded in their centripetal motion by these groupings, according as local attraction aids or opposes the general movement; and from the same cause arise deflections, and variations of direction. Rotation would of necessity appear, and smaller masses would be compelled to share the rotation of the larger. Rotating masses, their attraction increasing as their mass increases, draw smaller masses to themselves, and clear a space around them. Thus we have rotating nebulæ in space: nebulæ condensing, but condensing in time, because repulsion is everywhere resisting attraction.

III.  What then is the simplest expression of the law of these forces? We have two data to go upon: in the first place we can investigate the law of repulsive action in phenomena within our reach; and in the second place we can deduce it from the known law of gravity to which it is the reaction, and consequently the converse. Take a lighted candle, throwing its rays upon a moveable screen, place a small opaque body near the light, and mark on the screen the size of the shadow, which is the measure of the light intercepted. Remove the screen to double the distance, and the shadow will be four times as great; showing that the light, if allowed to pass, Would have covered ­[page 193:] four times the surface. At three times the distance, it will be nine times the size, and so on; the law of radiation being that diffusion proceeds as the squares of the distances; or, as it is expressed in geometry, the surfaces of spheres are as the squares of their radii. This then should be the converse of the law of attraction. Now what is Newton’s law of gravity? Attraction increases inversely as the squares of the distances. We are proceeding on the same lines of the sphere; in the one case from a centre, in the other toward a centre.

IV.  These laws, then, are always and everywhere present, and there are no other primary laws but these. There are no other forces; but these are constant and all-pervading. Every atom and every mass of atoms is affected by some portion, less or more, of the original dispersive force it received, and by some portion, less or more, of the original reactive attraction. When there is no perceptible preponderance of either, the substance is in equilibrium; when either preponderates, there result phenomena of motion or change. Forces may be set free from one group of atoms and affect other groups; but the sum of all the forces, constituting the original dispersive energy and the consequent reaction, remains forever the same.

V.  The forces, though originally but two, are distinguished by various names, according to their mode of operation. If they affect molecules of different kinds, we call them Chemical Attraction and Electrolysis; if molecules of a similar kind, Cohesion and Heat; if masses, Gravitation and Centrifugal force; and so forth. But in attraction we perceive only the reaction against an original force, while in phenomena of repulsion — in Light, Heat, and the rest — we come into immediate contact with the original dispersive energy; — we feel, if so bold a phrase may be allowed, the very contact of the hand of God. It is this idea, though not so worded, that makes Poe speak of the repulsive forces as “awful,” and look in them for the key to the phenomena of Life and Thought.

VI.  He rejects the hypothesis of a luminiferous æther, conceiving any signs of a planet or comet drawing nearer and nearer to its central orb at each revolution — if this phenomenon has been indeed ascertained — to be but the foretokening of that consummation, that in-gathering of the worlds, which must result from the preponderance of attraction, and which, he thinks, will be the end of all things. Upon other grounds we think the hypothesis of an æther untenable, and believe that before long it will follow the useful but now abandoned hypotheses of phlogiston and caloric. To use but one argument: are the particles of this æther in contact or not in contact? If in contact, then it is by far the densest of all known bodies; and yet, by the hypothesis, it is so attenuated that no instrument, however delicate, can detect it, and no addition or subtraction of it, on however great a scale, to or from any substance, perceptibly affects the gravity of that substance. If in contact, moreover, how does it transmit vibrations — the sole office for which it has been assumed? Vibration implies relative movement of particles; but how can the particles of an absolute solid move? As Hirn justly remarks, ancient science had a horror of a vacuum, while modern science equally shrinks from the conception of a plenum. But if not in contact, then the vibrations must be transmitted ­[page 194:] from particle to particle across the intermediate space; and what in this case have we gained by our hypothesis? Distance is merely relative; and if we admit that an impulse of force can traverse vacancy from atom to contiguous atom, we can not hesitate to allow that another impulse may pass from Antares to the Dog-star.

VII.  The Material Universe is limited, because diffusion reached a period and did not continue into infinity, which would have precluded the possibility of reaction. Moreover, if it were infinite, there could be no change; for as infinity equals infinity, every atom would be attracted simultaneously in all directions by precisely equal forces, and would remain in equilibrium. But we can not conceive of space as limited. Is there then but a single Universe, floating, however vast, as a mere speck in an absolute infinity of vacancy? May there not be an infinity of separate universes? Our author conceives that there are such, “which having had no part in our origin, have no portion in our laws. They neither attract us nor we them, Their material, their spirit is not ours; is not what obtains in any part of our Universe. They could not impress our senses nor our souls. Among them and us there are no influences in common. Each exists, apart and independently, in the bosom of its proper and particular God.” To which we say, why not all in the bosom of Infinite Deity?

Such, briefly stated, are some of the principal views enounced in this remarkable essay, which was delivered as a lecture early in 1848. We will compare with them some of the most recent conclusions or speculations of men of science, to show how far their minds have travelled along the road comprehensively surveyed by Poe.

In 1843 Mr. W. R. Grove delivered a course of lectures in London, which were afterwards printed as an essay On the Correlation of Physical Forces. It attracted much attention, but was not published in America until 1865. He there establishes the persistence of force, and shows that what has been considered an annihilation of force is merely its conversion into another form, as in the production of heat and light by impact and friction. With gravitation and cohesion he has some difficulty, “their relation to the other modes of force being less definitely traceable;” though of course he adverts to the fact that when a falling body is checked in its course, heat results. One point, however, seems not to have occurred to him: that if the definition of a repulsive force, such as heat, be that it causes every atom of matter affected by it to tend away from every other atom, there must be a difference, not merely in mode of action, but in the very essence, between it and attraction, the definition of which is precisely the reverse. So to say that a force which has one definition, is changed into a force with the precisely opposite definition — to say that attraction is changed into repulsion — is equivalent to saying that black is changed into white. That the phenomena of attraction have vanished, and the phenomena of repulsion have appeared, is all that we can say. But must we thence conclude that there has been an annihilation of one force and creation of another? By no means. Let us revert to Poe’s principles. According to his hypothesis, or speculation, the material universe is charged with two forces, the particular relation and adjustment of the ­[page 195:] two in every atom and in every mass fixing the dynamic condition of that atom or mass. If they be balanced, it is in equilibrium; if either preponderate, it is changing. By increasing one of these forces, we may disengage a portion of the outer; as for instance, by using the pressure of a weight to increase the density of an elastic substance. Here an attractive force, gravitation, comes to the assistance of an attractive force, cohesion. So much of the repulsive force which had kept the particles of the substance at a certain distance from each other is disengaged, as corresponds to the difference in density produced by the process, and this appears in the form of sensible heat. We do not say that the gravitation has been changed into repulsion, but that it has replaced and liberated it. If the gravitation were changed into heat, then, as the pressure is constant, a perpetual supply of heat should be given out, so long as the pressure lasts. If we are correct in our views, there are replacements of force which present phenomena similar to those produced by conversion of force; as, (by way of illustration, not an example) a balloon rising seems to be repelled from the earth, whereas it is gravitation alone that causes it to ascend.

More recently, Dr. Faraday published a very remarkable paper, entitled Some Thoughts on the Conversation of Force. In this, after admitting the principle as established, he treats of a difficulty it presents in the case of gravity. Suppose a particle A by itself, he says, it would have no attraction. Now suppose another particle B “placed in relation to it, gravitation comes on, as is supposed, on the part of both.” Now this he conceives would be a creation of force. Unquestionably it would, and something more besides. For if the second particle B, was not previously “in relation” to A, then it did not exist; and he is calling upon us to conceive the creation of a particle, which is not in any way less difficult of conception than the creation of a force. But again he supposes the case of the particle B being removed to an infinite distance from A, when the attraction will be infinitely diminished. “Such removal of B will be as if it were annihilated in regard to A, and the force in A will be annihilated at the same time.” Here is again the old mathematical sophistry, trapping even so eminent an intellect as Faraday’s. Because an infinitely small quantity can be treated as nothing in mathematical calculations, it does not follow that it can be so treated in logic. An infinitely small quantity is a quantity; it is not annihilated: and the question precisely turns — not on the point of its relative magnitude, but on the point of its being annihilated or not. If he had said “suppose the particle B annihilated,” his whole question would have dropped. But he assumes that it is not annihilated when he wishes to present a conceivable condition of matter, and then that it is virtually annihilated, to exhibit an inconceivable condition of force.

But these confusions cleared away, a real difficulty presents itself, and that is the unquestioned increase of gravitating force in the ratio of the square of the diminishing distance. Here is a particle a and a particle b, attracting each other. Diminish the distance by one-half, and their reciprocal attraction is increased fourfold. Is not this a creation of power? And if, holding to the persistence of force, we say it is not, how is it to be explained? This looks really formidable. ­[page 196:] Faraday himself admits that it is too much for him, and only conjectures that there may be some other power either within them or without them, which increases or diminishes to compensate for the diminution or increase of gravitation.

It seems to us that the great difficulty here arises from the conditions of the question. The law of gravitation was deduced from the observation of things as they exist, and we are called upon to apply it to a state of things which does not and can not exist. One member of the equation is left out, and we are challenged to explain why there is a difference in the solution. We do not know what would be the law of attraction in a universe consisting of two particles only, nor can we argue about it. Newton’s law applies to the universe as it is.

But to come back to the unquestionable fact of the relation of gravitative force to distance in the existing state of things. We have, we will say, three masses, a, b, and c, forming part of and surrounded by the material universe, represented by the circle U, as in the diagram. Now every atom in each of these masses, and in the universe, attracts every other atom in its own mass, in the other masses, and in the universe. This attraction operates in the direction of radial lines from each atom toward all the rest; and with respect to the masses, in the direction of radial lines from the centre of each mass. Now the figure 1 law of radiation we know, and it shows us that if the mass b be removed towards a, it subtends a greater number of these lines of force proceeding from a, and a less number of those proceeding from c. If b be equidistant originally from a and c, and then removed one-half the distance nearer to a, it will now subtend four times the number of these lines of force from a, and in consequence be attracted by it four times as strongly; while it will subtend but 4/9 the number of these lines from c. The case is precisely that of a screen between two lights. If we suppose b, in the above diagram, to be a screen, receiving from each luminary, assumed to be equal, an amount of light which we may call 9 (and which is measurable by the area of the shadow cast), if it be removed half way towards a, it will receive from a an amount equal to 36, and from c an amount equal to 4. Therefore the screen altogether receives more light than before. But we do not infer any increased brilliancy on the part of the luminary a: the screen merely intercepts rays that previously passed by it. Precisely so with our gravitating bodies: the body b, in its new position, merely receives force from a which would have passed beyond it into the universe. But the screen intercepts the light from other bodies; whereas the body a attracts all other bodies just as powerfully as before. Precisely; but the screen does not annihilate the light, it reflects or absorbs it; nor does the body b annihilate the attraction of a, it transmits it, with its own attraction added. It resembles a screen which is itself both transparent and luminous.

The dynamic conditions seem to us identical with those affecting the molecules of a mass; each molecule receiving the attractions of ­[page 197:] the other molecules and transmitting them, increased by its own attraction; so that the sum of the attractions of all the molecules becomes the attraction of the whole; which is the first part of Newton’s law. So the two masses, a and b, may be considered as constituting one mass relatively to c.

Here arises another consideration. Is the mass b approaching a, or is it stationary? If stationary, then as it is attracted and does not move responsively to that attraction, it is prevented by some resisting force: if moving, as it moves in time, through space, then is a resisting force overcome. Mass, space, and time are the elements by which force is measured, gravity being taken as the standard. If a resisting force is overcome in space and time, work is done; and at the same time the victorious force is proportionately lessened in its effects on the rest of the universe. If it be said that there is no experimental proof of this, we reply that the circumstances are such as to preclude experiments. The attraction of the mass of the earth is so enormous compared with the reciprocal attractions of bodies on its surface, as to render the latter nearly vanishing quantities. With the most delicate of instruments, the torsion balance, it has been found just possible to measure the attraction of two ponderous masses of lead on two light balls, a result which must be read off with a microscope; but what balance could measure, or what glass read the difference of the attraction exerted by these masses upon other bodies when the balls were moving, from that which they exerted when the latter were at rest?

This may be contrary to received opinion, and yet none the less true. Who would have believed ten years ago that a given weight of charcoal, burnt in a vessel surrounded by ice, could not melt so much of the latter when a part of the heat was employed in raising a weight, as M. Laubereau’s hot-air engine now plainly shows?

But our imaginary three masses, under these conditions, are in reality cosmical bodies, and must be considered in cosmical relations. This brings us to an examination of the most recent work on cosmical forces: Dr. Winslow’s Force and Nature (1869). Dr. Winslow, whose first views were published in 1853, saw that two opposing forces were necessary to produce the phenomena of the universe; but while one of these, principally owing to the grand discoveries of Newton, had been the subject of the most careful investigation, the other was comparatively neglected. As no complete system of dynamics could be framed that did not give equal attention to both these forces, he made repulsion his especial study, at the time imagining himself the pioneer in the path. In the really valuable work above referred to, he notes how the idea of repulsion has caught at various times the attention of scientific minds, but rather in the way of conjecture than as a definite theorem. M. Faye, for instance, in a paper published in 1860, relative to Donati’s comet, and the phenomena it presented resembling the repulsive effects of heat, remarks, “Ne serait-il pas plus intérssant encore de retrouver dans le ciel la dualité des forces opposées qui régissent la matiére autour de nous?” Faye however conceives this cosmical force to be born of solar heat, which shows not merely that his views were too limited in their extent, but also that his reasoning was running counter, and referring the general cause to one special phenomenon. ­[page 198:]

Dr. Winslow takes at once the broadest views. He believes “repulsion to be an independent principle, as universal in its influence as gravitation itself;” a fact which, he says, “has heretofore been ignored by physicists.” Starting with the datum that attraction and repulsion are everywhere in permanent and inseparable union with molecules, he traces the two principles to their actions on masses, and finally upon cosmical bodies or masses moving freely in space. The simple forces operate upon matter in various ways, or present different sequences of phenomena; hence we distinguish secondary forces, as gravitation, cohesion, chemical attraction; or centrifugal force, heat, electricity, etc. The theory of an æther he discards as an unnecessary and untenable hypothesis, and he conceives repulsive as well as attractive forces to be interacting throughout all the universe. Thus while he believes himself to be “laying the corner-stone of a new philosophy,” he is really rediscovering the land which Poe had touched upon, years before; and is mistaken when he says: — “As an element of the highest character in scientific investigations, repulsion has been overlooked by philosophers, and indeed rejected altogether from consideration in celestial mechanics.” In some points his views differ from Poe’s, of course. Poe, on à priori grounds, believed attraction to be the predominant force, and the universe to be steadily collapsing to unity; Dr. Winslow believes the forces equal, and the universe stable.

If Poe’s views were correct, then, since the process does not proceed equably, as we have already seen, we should expect to find occasionally some notable instance of this concentration. Such an instance has been seen in the new star in Corona Borealis, which spectrum analysis showed to be a world on fire. A world on fire is one in which condensation has reached such a point that its general internal equilibrium is overthrown, and its molecules enter into new and more intimate chemical combination. There is a rapid predominance of attraction, and a liberation of repulsion, in the form, as we know, of light, and probably (but not certainly) also of heat. The star, after the process, must be left denser than before; but as the liberated repulsive force is transmitted to other parts of the universe — notably to our own in the form of light — we can not say that this phenomenon establishes the fact of universal concentration.

In some points Dr. Winslow does not seem to understand his own views, as when he explains the rising of a balloon as “a consequence of the absolute repulsion between the hydrogen gas and the earth,” whereas it is a simple effect of gravitation; when he calls in the aid of “metastases” or sudden “translations of force” to explain chemical phenomena which are sufficiently accounted for by the forces known to be present; and in many other points, which we omit, as we are not reviewing his very thoughtful and valuable work.

In 1868, the distinguished M. Hirn, of Colmar in Alsatia, published an essay entitled Conséquences philosophiques et métaphysiques de la Thermodynamique, (only known to the present writer through a review in the Revue Des Deux Mondes, May 15, 1869.) In one point at least M. Hirn’s views coincide very remarkably with those of Poe. He maintains the absolute existence of three principles, matter, force, and spirit. Repudiating the hypothetical æther, he replaces it by pure force ­[page 199:] (“dynamis”), which does not exist in the atoms, but the atoms in it. “This intermediate principle,” he says, “by its very nature escapes the finite conditions of time and space. Any attempt to associate with it an idea of mass, density, divisibility, compressibility, leads at once to the absurd. . . . In no sense can it be confounded with what has hitherto been called the ether . . . . . This intermediate element constitutes Force itself.”

Precisely the same view Poe takes of his primary repulsive force, which he conceived to be the immediate action of Deity, immanent in the universe. “It will be remembered,” he says, “that I have myself assumed what we may term an ether. I have spoken of a subtle influence which we know to be ever in attendance upon matter, although becoming manifest only through matter’s heterogeneity. To this influence — without daring to touch it at all in any effort at explaining its awful nature — I have referred the various phenomena of electricity, heat, light, magnetism; and more — of vitality, consciousness and thought — in a word, of spirituality. It will be seen at once, then, that the ether thus conceived is radically distinct from the ether of the astronomers; inasmuch as theirs is matter and mine not.”

Thus at every point we meet the ideas of Poe, arising independently in the minds of thinkers furnished with all the lights of later discoveries. Whether these views be correct or erroneous, it is not our business here to inquire: there is no mistaking Poe’s thorough conviction of their truth, nor the profound earnestness and even awe with which their contemplation filled him. Our object has been merely to place in a truer light certain qualities of the genius of that remarkable man, which have hitherto been overlooked or ignored.






[S:1 - NEM, 1869] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe's Eureka and Recent Scientific Speculations (W. H. Browne, 1869)