Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Eureka [Section 06]” (Text-6), Eureka: A Prose Poem­ (1848), pp. 81-95


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­ [page 81, continued:]

The radical assumptions of this Discourse suggest to me, and in fact imply, certain important modifications of the Nebular Theory as given by Laplace. The efforts of the repulsive power I have considered as made for the purpose of preventing contact among the atoms, and thus as made in the ratio of the approach to contact — that is to say, in the ratio of condensation.* In other words, Electricity, with its involute phænomena, heat, light and magnetism, is to be understood as proceeding as condensation proceeds, and, of course, inversely, as density proceeds, ­[page 82:] or the cessation to condense. Thus the Sun, in the process of its aggregation, must soon, in developing repulsion, have become excessively heated — perhaps incandescent: and we can perceive how the operation of discarding its rings must have been materially assisted by the slight incrustation [[encrustation]] of its surface consequent on cooling. Any common experiment shows us how readily a crust of the character suggested, is separated, through heterogeneity, from the interior mass. But, on every successive rejection of the crust, the new surface would appear incandescent as before; and the period at which it would again become so far encrusted as to be readily loosened and discharged, may well be imagined as exactly coincident with that at which a new effort would be needed, by the whole mass, to restore the equilibrium of its two forces, disarranged through condensation. In other words: — by the time the electric influence (Repulsion) has prepared the surface for rejection, we are to understand that the gravitating influence (Attraction) is precisely ready to reject it. Here, then, as everywhere, the Body and the Soul walk hand in hand.

These ideas are empirically confirmed at all points. Since condensation can never, in any body, be considered as absolutely at an end, we are warranted in anticipating that, whenever we have an opportunity of testing the matter, we shall find indications of resident luminosity in all the stellar bodies — moons and planets as well as suns. That our Moon is strongly self-luminous, we see at her every total eclipse, when, if not so, she would disappear. On the dark part of the satellite, too, during her phases, we often observe flashes like our own Auroras; and that these latter, with our various other so-called electrical phænomena, ­[page 83:] without reference to any more steady radiance, must give our Earth a certain appearance of luminosity to an inhabitant of the Moon, is quite evident. In fact, we should regard all the phænomena referred to, as mere manifestations, in different moods and degrees, of the Earth’s feebly-continued condensation.

If my views are tenable, we should be prepared to find the newer planets — that is to say, those nearer the Sun — more luminous than those older and more remote: — and the extreme brilliancy of Venus (on whose dark portions, during her phases, the Auroras are frequently visible) does not seem to be altogether accounted for by her mere proximity to the central orb. She is no doubt vividly self-luminous, although less so than Mercury: while the luminosity of Neptune may be comparatively nothing.

Admitting what I have urged, it is clear that, from the moment of the Sun’s discarding a ring, there must be a continuous diminution both of his heat and light, on account of the continuous encrustation of his surface; and that a period would arrive — the period immediately previous to a new discharge — when a very material decrease of both light and heat, must become apparent. Now, we know that tokens of such changes are distinctly recognizable. On the Melville islands — to adduce merely one out of a hundred examples — we find traces of ultra-tropical vegetation — of plants that never could have flourished without immensely more light and heat than are at present afforded by our Sun to any portion of the surface of the Earth. Is such vegetation referable to an epoch immediately subsequent to the whirling-off of Venus? At this epoch must ­[page 84:] have occurred to us our greatest access of solar influence; and, in fact, this influence must then have attained its maximum: — leaving out of view, of course, the period when the Earth itself was discarded — the period of its mere organization.

Again: — we know that there exist non-luminous suns — that is to say, suns whose existence we determine through the movements of others, but whose luminosity is not sufficient to impress us. Are these suns invisible merely on account of the length of time elapsed since their discharge of a planet? And yet again: — may we not — at least in certain cases — account for the sudden appearances of suns where none had been previously suspected, by the hypothesis that, having rolled with encrusted surfaces throughout the few thousand years of our astronomical history, each of these suns, in whirling off a new secondary, has at length been enabled to display the glories of its still incandescent interior? — To the well-ascertained fact of the proportional increase of heat as we descend into the Earth, I need of course, do nothing more than refer: — it comes in the strongest possible corroboration of all that I have said on the topic now at issue.

In speaking, not long ago, of the repulsive or electrical influence, I remarked that “the important phænomena of vitality, consciousness, and thought, whether we observe them generally or in detail, seem to proceed at least in the ratio of the heterogeneous.”* I mentioned, too, that I would recur to the suggestion: — and this is the proper point at which to do so. Looking at the matter, first, in detail, we ­[page 85:] perceive that not merely the manifestation of vitality, but its importance, consequence, and elevation of character, keep pace very closely with the heterogeneity, or complexity, of the animal structure. Looking at the question, now, in its generality, and referring to the first movements of the atoms towards mass-constitution, we find that heterogeneousness, brought about directly through condensation, is proportional with it forever. We thus reach the proposition that the importance of the development of the terrestrial vitality proceeds as the terrestrial condensation.

Now this is in precise accordance with what we know of the succession of animals on the Earth. As it has proceeded in its condensation, superior and still superior races have appeared. Is it impossible that the successive geological revolutions which have attended, at least, if not immediately caused, these successive elevations of vitalic character — is it improbable that these revolutions have themselves been produced by the successive planetary discharges from the Sun — in other words, by the successive variations in the solar influence on the Earth? Were this idea tenable, we should not be unwarranted in the fancy that the discharge of yet a new planet, interior to Mercury, may give rise to yet a new modification of the terrestrial surface — a modification from which may spring a race both materially and spiritually superior to Man. These thoughts impress me with all the force of truth — but I throw them out, of course, merely in their obvious character of suggestion.

The Nebular Theory of Laplace has lately received far ­[page 86:] more confirmation than it needed, at the hands of the philosopher, Compte [[Comte]]. These two have thus together shown — not, to be sure, that Matter at any period actually existed as described, in a state of nebular diffusion, but that, admitting it so to have existed throughout the space and much beyond the space now occupied by our solar system, and to have commenced a movement towards a centre — it must gradually have assumed the various forms and motions which are now seen, in that system, to obtain. A demonstration such as this — a dynamical and mathematical demonstration, as far as demonstration can be — unquestionable and unquestioned — unless, indeed, by that unprofitable and disreputable tribe, the professional questioners — the mere madmen who deny the Newtonian law of Gravity on which the results of the French mathematicians are based — a demonstration, I say, such as this, would to most intellects be conclusive — and I confess that it is so to mine — of the validity of the nebular hypothesis upon which the demonstration depends.

That the demonstration does not prove the hypothesis, according to the common understanding of the word “proof,” I admit, of course. To show that certain existing results — that certain established facts — may be, even mathematically, accounted for by the assumption of a certain hypothesis, is by no means to establish the hypothesis itself. In other words: — to show that, certain data being given, a certain existing result might, or even must, have ensued, will fail to prove that this result did ensue, from the data, until such time as it shall be also shown that there are, and can be, no other data from which the result in question ­[page 87:] might equally have ensued. But, in the case now discussed, although all must admit the deficiency of what we are in the habit of terming “proof,” still there are many intellects, and those of the loftiest order, to which no proof could bring one iota of additional conviction. Without going into details which might impinge upon the Cloud-Land of Metaphysics, I may as well here observe that the force of conviction, in cases such as this, will always, with the right-thinking, be proportional to the amount of complexity intervening between the hypothesis and the result. To be less abstract: — The greatness of the complexity found existing among cosmical conditions, by rendering great in the same proportion the difficulty of accounting for all these conditions at once, strengthens, also in the same proportion, our faith in that hypothesis which does, in such manner, satisfactorily account for them: — and as no complexity can well be conceived greater than that of the astronomical conditions, so no conviction can be stronger — to my mind at least — than that with which I am impressed by an hypothesis that not only reconciles these conditions, with mathematical accuracy, and reduces them into a consistent and intelligible whole, but is, at the same time, the sole hypothesis by means of which the human intellect has been ever enabled to account for them at all.

A most unfounded opinion has become latterly current in gossiping and even in scientific circles — the opinion that the so-called Nebular Cosmogony has been overthrown. This fancy has arisen from the report of late observations made, among what hitherto have been termed the “nebulæ,” through the large telescope of Cincinnati, and the world-renowned ­[page 88:] instrument of Lord Rosse. Certain spots in the firmament which presented, even to the most powerful of the old telescopes, the appearance of nebulosity, or haze, had been regarded for a long time as confirming the theory of Laplace. They were looked upon as stars in that very process of condensation which I have been attempting to describe. Thus it was supposed that we “had ocular evidence” — an evidence, by the way, which has always been found very questionable — of the truth of the hypothesis; and, although certain telescopic improvements, every now and then, enabled us to perceive that a spot, here and there, which we had been classing among the nebulæ, was, in fact, but a cluster of stars deriving its nebular character only from its immensity of distance — still it was thought that no doubt could exist as to the actual nebulosity of numerous other masses, the strong-holds of the nebulists, bidding defiance to every effort at segregation. Of these latter the most interesting was the great “nebula” in the constellation Orion: — but this, with innumerable other miscalled “nebulæ,” when viewed through the magnificent modern telescopes, has become resolved into a simple collection of stars. Now this fact has been very generally understood as conclusive against the Nebular Hypothesis of Laplace; and, on announcement of the discoveries in question, the most enthusiastic defender and most eloquent popularizer of the theory, Dr. Nichol, went so far as to “admit the necessity of abandoning” an idea which had formed the material of his most praiseworthy book.* ­[page 89:]

Many of my readers will no doubt be inclined to say that the result of these new investigations has at least a strong tendency to overthrow the hypothesis; while some of them, more thoughtful, will suggest that, although the theory is by no means disproved through the segregation of the particular “nebulæ” alluded to, still a failure to segregate them, with such telescopes, might well have been understood as a triumphant corroboration of the theory: — and this latter class will be surprised, perhaps, to hear me say that even with them I disagree. If the propositions of this Discourse have been comprehended, it will be seen that, in my view, a failure to segregate the “nebulæ” would have tended to the refutation, rather than to the confirmation, of the Nebular Hypothesis.

Let me explain: — The Newtonian Law of Gravity we may, of course, assume as demonstrated. This law, it will be remembered, I have referred to the rëaction of the first Divine Act — to the rëaction of an exercise of the Divine Volition temporarily overcoming a difficulty. This difficulty is that of forcing the normal into the abnormal — of impelling that whose originality, and therefore whose rightful condition, was One, to take upon itself the wrongful condition of Many. It is only by conceiving this difficulty as temporarily overcome, that we can comprehend a rëaction. ­[page 90:] There could have been no rëaction had the act been infinitely continued. So long as the act lasted, no rëaction, of course, could commence; in other words, no gravitation could take place — for we have considered the one as but the manifestation of the other. But gravitation has taken place; therefore the act of Creation has ceased: and gravitation has long ago taken place; therefore the act of Creation has long ago ceased. We can no more expect, then, to observe the primary processes of Creation; and to these primary processes the condition of nebulosity has already been explained to belong.

Through what we know of the propagation of light, we have direct proof that the more remote of the stars have existed, under the forms in which we now see them, for an inconceivable number of years. So far back at least, then, as the period when these stars underwent condensation, must have been the epoch at which the mass-constitutive processes began. That we may conceive these processes, then, as still going on in the case of certain “nebulæ,” while in all other cases we find them thoroughly at an end, we are forced into assumptions for which we have really no basis whatever — we have to thrust in, again, upon the revolting Reason, the blasphemous idea of special interposition — we have to suppose that, in the particular instances of these “nebulæ,” an unerring God found it necessary to introduce certain supplementary regulations — certain improvements of the general law — certain retouchings and emendations, in a word, which had the effect of deferring the completion of these individual stars for centuries of centuries beyond the æra during which all the other stellar bodies had time, ­[page 91:] not only to be fully constituted, but to grow hoary with an unspeakable old age.

Of course, it will be immediately objected that since the light by which we recognize the nebulæ now, must be merely that which left their surfaces a vast number of years ago, the processes at present observed, or supposed to be observed, are, in fact, not processes now actually going on, but the phantoms of processes completed long in the Past — just as I maintain all these mass-constitutive processes must have been.

To this I reply that neither is the now-observed condition of the condensed stars their actual condition, but a condition completed long in the Past; so that my argument drawn from the relative condition of the stars and the “nebulæ,” is in no manner disturbed. Moreover, those who maintain the existence of nebulæ, do not refer the nebulosity to extreme distance; they declare it a real and not merely a perspective nebulosity. That we may conceive, indeed, a nebular mass as visible at all, we must conceive it as very near us in comparison with the condensed stars brought into view by the modern telescopes. In maintaining the appearances in question, then, to be really nebulous, we maintain their comparative vicinity to our point of view. Thus, their condition, as we see them now, must be referred to an epoch far less remote than that to which we may refer the now-observed condition of at least the majority of the stars. — In a word, should Astronomy ever demonstrate a “nebula,” in the sense at present intended, I should consider the Nebular Cosmogony — not, indeed, as corroborated by the demonstration — but as thereby irretrievably overthrown. ­[page 92:]

By way, however, of rendering unto Cæsar no more than the things that are Cæsar’s, let me here remark that the assumption of the hypothesis which led him to so glorious a result, seems to have been suggested to Laplace in great measure by a misconception — by the very misconception of which we have just been speaking — by the generally prevalent misunderstanding of the character of the nebulæ, so mis-named. These he supposed to be, in reality, what their designation implies. The fact is, this great man had, very properly, an inferior faith in his own merely perceptive powers. In respect, therefore, to the actual existence of nebulæ — an existence so confidently maintained by his telescopic contemporaries — he depended less upon what he saw than upon what he heard.

It will be seen that the only valid objections to his theory, are those made to its hypothesis as such — to what suggested it — not to what it suggests; to its propositions rather than to its results. His most unwarranted assumption was that of giving the atoms a movement towards a centre, in the very face of his evident understanding that these atoms, in unlimited succession, extended throughout the Universal space. I have already shown that, under such circumstances, there could have occurred no movement at all; and Laplace, consequently, assumed one on no more philosophical ground than that something of the kind was necessary for the establishment of what he intended to establish.

His original idea seems to have been a compound of the true Epicurean atoms with the false nebulæ of his contemporaries; and thus his theory presents us with the singular ­[page 93:] anomaly of absolute truth deduced, as a mathematical result, from a hybrid datum of ancient imagination intertangled with modern inacumen. Laplace’s real strength lay, in fact, in an almost miraculous mathematical instinct: — on this he relied; and in no instance did it fail or deceive him: — in the case of the Nebular Cosmogony, it led him, blindfolded, through a labyrinth of Error, into one of the most luminous and stupendous temples of Truth.

Let us now fancy, for the moment, that the ring first thrown off by the Sun — that is to say, the ring whose breaking-up constituted Neptune — did not, in fact, break up until the throwing-off of the ring out of which Uranus arose; that this latter ring, again, remained perfect until the discharge of that out of which sprang Saturn; that this latter, again, remained entire until the discharge of that from which originated Jupiter — and so on. Let us imagine, in a word, that no dissolution occurred among the rings until the final rejection of that which gave birth to Mercury. We thus paint to the eye of the mind a series of cöexistent concentric circles; and looking as well at them as at the processes by which, according to Laplace’s hypothesis, they were constructed, we perceive at once a very singular analogy with the atomic strata and the process of the original irradiation as I have described it. Is it impossible that, on measuring the forces, respectively, by which each successive planetary circle was thrown off — that is to say, on measuring the successive excesses of rotation over gravitation which occasioned the successive discharges — we should find the analogy in question more decidedly confirmed?Is it improbable that we should discover these ­[page 94:] forces to have varied — as in the original radiationproportionally with the squares of the distances?

Our solar system, consisting, in chief, of one sun, with seventeen planets certainly, and possibly a few more, revolving about it at various distances, and attended by seventeen moons assuredly, but very probably by several others — is now to be considered as an example of the innumerable agglomerations which proceeded to take place throughout the Universal Sphere of atoms on withdrawal of the Divine Volition. I mean to say that our solar system is to be understood as affording a generic instance of these agglomerations, or, more correctly, of the ulterior conditions at which they arrived. If we keep our attention fixed on the idea of the utmost possible Relation as the Omnipotent design, and on the precautions taken to accomplish it through difference of form, among the original atoms, and particular inequidistance, we shall find it impossible to suppose for a moment that even any two of the incipient agglomerations reached precisely the same result in the end. We shall rather be inclined to think that no two stellar bodies in the Universe — whether suns, planets or moons — are particularly, while all are generally, similar. Still less, then, can we imagine any two assemblages of such bodies — any two “systems” — as having more than a general resemblance.* Our telescopes, at this point, thoroughly confirm our deduction. ­[page 95:] Taking our own solar system, then, as merely a loose or general type of all, we have so far proceeded in our subject as to survey the Universe under the aspect of a spherical space, throughout which, dispersed with merely general equability, exist a number of but generally similar systems.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 81:]

­ *  See page 70.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 84:]

­ *  Page 37.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 88, running to the bottom of page 89:]

­ *  “Views of the Architecture of the Heavens.” A letter, purporting to be from Dr. Nichol to a friend in America, went the rounds of our newspapers, [page 89:] about two years ago, I think, admitting “the necessity” to which I refer. In a subsequent Lecture, however, Dr. N. appears in some manner to have gotten the better of the necessity, and does not quite renounce the theory, although he seems to wish that he could sneer at it as “a purely hypothetical one.” What else was the Law of Gravity before the Maskelyne experiments? and who questioned the Law of Gravity, even then?

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 94:]

­*  It is not impossible that some unlooked-for optical improvement may disclose to us, among innumerable varieties of systems, a luminous sun, encircled by luminous and non-luminous rings, within and without and between which, revolve luminous and non-luminous planets, attended by moons having moons — and even these latter again having moons.


Notes:

in the left margin, by the phrase “total eclipse” in the paragraph beginning “These ideas are empirically confirmed . . .” on page 82, a question mark has been drawn in pencil. It is uncertain whether or not this mark was made by Poe, or what it was intended to indiate.

In three of the copies bearing his own annotations (the Osborne, Nelson-Mabbott, and Hurst-Wakeman copies), Poe corrects the reference in the footnote on page 84 from page 36 to page 37. In the same three copies, he changed “nebulæ,” on page 88, to “nebula.” Why he did not make the same correction in the copy he gave to Mrs. Whitman is a minor mystery.


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[S:1 - Eureka, 1848] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Essays - Eureka: A Prose Poem [Section 06] (Text-6)