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Edgar Allan Poe, poet, essayist... cosmologist?
Not so much.
- In 1848, Edgar Allan Poe wrote a book outlining his theory of everything.
- Modern readers will find many familiar concepts, including the Big Bang and multiple universes.
- While it has little real scientific merit, it does have a solution to Olbers' Paradox.
Edgar Allan Poe is one of the best-known American authors. His poems and short stories are known and loved all over the world. That he was the inventor of the detective story is less well known. Even less well known is his prediction of modern cosmology in a little book he titled Eureka.
Poe's Theory of Everything
In 1848, Poe gave a lecture titled "On the Cosmography of the Universe" to a crowd of 60 somewhat confused listeners. This lecture formed the basis of what would become Eureka: A Prose Poem; an obscure little masterpiece that had a run of a mere 50 copies.
Essentially a metaphysical work, Poe lays out a vision of a Newtonian universe that uses very different assumptions than those which were common when he was writing. While most physicists at the time presumed the universe was static, infinite, and eternal, Poe instead argued that God created a "primordial particle" which divided into all the matter we see today and then expanded from its initial position to spread across space. More than a few people have noticed the similarities of this idea to the Big Bang theory.
He doesn't stop there. He then suggests that gravity, to him the attractive force caused by the primordial oneness of everything, will cause the universe to collapse upon itself into another primordial particle; which is reminiscent of the Big Crunch. He even muses that this could be part of an endless cycle of expansion and contraction, which today we call the oscillating model.
In other sections, he touches on the idea that "space and duration are one" which some see as a prediction of relativistic "space-time" and muses on the interchangeability of matter and energy. Toward the end, he suggests that our universe could be one of many that exists on an infinite plane — one of the earliest references to other universes.
In another section, he devises the first working solution to Olbers' Paradox; the problem of why the sky gets dark at night if the universe is infinitely old, vast and evenly populated with stars.
The paradox is that if those three things were true, which many astronomers thought they were, then the night sky should be very bright. No matter what direction in the sky you look at, you should be looking at a star which has had eternity to shine down on Earth.
Poe was the first to solve the paradox by suggesting that the observable universe is finite in size and that the light from stars beyond the furthest point we can observe just hasn't gotten here yet. Astronomer Edward R. "Ted" Harrison explained in his book Darkness at Night that this is the first plausible solution and that Eurkea anticipated similar arguments put forth by Lord Kelvin in 1901.
So, is it a towering work of science?
No, far from it. Most critical analysis concludes that his work has no scientific merit for several reasons.
Poe makes assertions where are factually inaccurate, not the least of which is his claim that Kepler arrived at his laws of planetary motion by guesswork rather than by analyzing the data recorded by Tycho Brahe. He spends a great deal of time satirizing both empirical and deductive methods of rigorously looking for truth and as a result is less than rigorous and convincing when he tries to address potential objections.
His work is also purely Newtonian and does not fully anticipate relativistic theory as shown when he calls his work "geometrical" and proposes that there is pre-existing space that the material universe expands into, which modern physics rejects. Because of issues like these, Eureka is fundamentally metaphysical or even mystic in nature and reads more like a pre-Socratic attempt to explain the cosmos than a scientific work. Empedocles' ideas on the cosmos come to mind while reading it.
However, his predictions are uncanny and show a non-casual relationship with modern science. The astronomer Alberto Cappi ascribes this to his assumption of an evolving universe, which most of his contemporaries, and even later thinkers like Albert Einstein, rejected. Cappi concludes, however, that with the advance of astronomy past what Poe had to work with, all that is left is a metaphysical work that anticipates some relativistic notions while remaining an outdated Newtonian model. He summarizes this by saying:
"Eureka is not a crank nor a scientific theory. It offers us a fascinating vision of the Universe by an imaginative mind, which using the science of its time could conceive of the most revolutionary cosmology of the 19th century."
Most interestingly though, Dr. Cappi explains that Alexander Friedmann, the scientist who first proposed that Einstein's theories implied that the universe was expanding, was an avid fan of Poe. While it can never be known if he read Eureka, it is fun to imagine that Poe influenced a physicist who would so radically shake our view of how the universe works.
It is worth noting that Poe's solution to Olbers' Paradox is commonly referenced and he is often given credit for his solution.
Is this the only time this has ever happened? Are there any other cases of somebody doing this?
"Prediscoveries," defined by author Tom Siegfried as "instances of theoretical anticipation," are relatively common in science. The physicist James Clerk Maxwell argued that invisible forms of radiation must exist and was proven right nine years after his death when radio waves were discovered.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant was one of the first to declare that heavenly bodies such as Andromeda were "Island Universes" and not nebulae inside our galaxy, that idea wouldn't be confirmed until the middle of the 20th century. Democritus is often credited as the father of modern atomic theory for his writings on the subject around 400 BCE.
Poe's work, however, is only admired for his take on Oblers' paradox. Dr. Cappi ascribes this lack of love to the metaphysical nature of the work, its often seemingly arbitrary assumptions, its limited printing, and the fact that a poet's argument for an expanding universe would have been dead on arrival in 1848.
Should Edgar Allan Poe be included in the lists of great cosmologists? Probably not, but Eureka is a curious pre-relativistic model of a consistent, expanding cosmos all the same. It is worth reading both for its own merits as a "prose poem" and as the blueprint for a strange universe not so different from our own.
Austro-Japanese aristocrat Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi later concentrated on plans for Pan-Europe.
- Unity is strength: This 1920s map divides the world among just five superstates.
- The map was produced by count Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi, who devoted his life to European unity.
- This utopian map may have inspired George Orwell's dystopian world in 1984.
Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi in 1926.
Image: public domain
If the geopolitical dreams of a 20th-century Austro-Japanese aristocrat had come true, this is what the map of the world would have looked like: dominated by no more than five super-states.
Now mostly obscure, count Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi (1894-1972) is remembered mainly as the hero and villain (respectively) of the two fringes of the never-ending debate about European integration.
And that's a shame, because Coudenhove-Kalergi cuts quite an intriguing figure. Not only is he the one who proposed Beethoven's Ode to Joy as Europe's anthem, he also served as inspiration for Victor Laszlo, the fictional resistance hero in Casablanca.
On his father's side, Richard was the scion of an Austrian noble family with roots in Flanders and Greece and branches all over the rest of Europe. His mother, Mitsuko Aoyama, came from a wealthy Japanese family of merchants and landowners.
Original flag of the Pan-European Union. The current flag includes the twelve stars of the European Union. Co-founded by Coudenhove-Kalergi in 1922, the PEU is still in existence: its current president is former French MP and MEP Alain Terrenoire. Its HQ is in Munich.
Image: Ssolbergj, CC BY-SA 3.0
In 1922, Coudenhove-Kalergi co-founded the Pan-European Union, together with Austrian Archduke Otto von Habsburg. A year later, he published the manifesto Pan-Europa, and in 1924 he founded an eponymous journal, which ran until 1938. In 1926, the first Congress of the Pan-European Union elected Coudenhove-Kalergi as its president, which he would remain until his death.
The motivation for the count's Pan-Europeanism was the threat of "world hegemony by Russia". The only way to prevent that was to supersede Europe's various nationalisms. The Pan-European superstate as envisioned by Coudenhove-Kalergi was a curious mix of social democracy and Christian conservatism – a "social aristocracy of the spirit". In response, Leon Trotsky, then Soviet commissar, in 1923 called for a "Soviet United States of Europe".
As in 1984 (and post Brexit), the UK in Coudenhove-Kalergi's system is not a part of the continental European superstate.
Image: public domain
The original framework for Coudenhove-Kalergi's Pan-Europeanism was a global polity of no more than five superstates, as shown on this map taken from one of his early works:
- Pan-Europe: uniting all European countries, minus the Russian and British empires. Pan-Europe also includes the French, Italian, Portuguese, Belgian, and Dutch colonial possessions, with a foothold in the Americas, half of Africa, and substantial parts of South East Asia.
- Pan-America: all of the Americas, with one major exception: Canada – controlled by the Brits. Minor exceptions include all the other bits controlled by the British and European empires. Pan-America also includes the Philippines, U.S.-administered at the time of publication.
- The British Commonwealth: basically, the British Empire at its height. Great Britain and Ireland, Canada and British Guyana, Africa from Cape to Cairo (and Nigeria, plus other territories in West Africa), the Arabian peninsula and the Indian subcontinent, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand.
- The Russian Empire: almost at its greatest extent. Ukraine is under the sway of Moscow, as are the Caucasian and Central Asian areas that are currently independent. But the Baltics are part of Pan-Europe.
- The smallest, but probably most populous of the five empires is East-Asia: uniting Japan, Korea and China, and also including Nepal.
A map of the world in 1984. George Orwell may have been inspired by Coudenhove-Kalergi's rather more utopian map.
Image: public domain
The map is also a bit scary: A globe dominated by an 'oligopoly' of just five states suggests governments that are far removed from their citizens.
It's a small leap from this world map to the one that informs 1984. In fact, George Orwell may have been inspired for his dystopian geography by the count's utopian vision: One of the three superstates on Orwell's imaginary map is in fact called 'Eastasia'. Another one, 'Eurasia', could be identified with another iteration of Coudenhove-Kalergi's Pan-Europe, without the colonial empires but including Russia.
In his later work, Coudenhove-Kalergi seems to have abandoned the global dimension of his agglomerative vision, concentrating more on unity within Europe.
His Pan-Europeanism may have been directed against the threat of the extreme left, that didn't make it popular with the extreme right. Hitler denounced the count (and his ideas) as those of a "rootless, cosmopolitan and elitist half-breed." The Nazis considered Pan-Europeanism a Masonic plot.
Fleeing into American exile after Austria's Anschluss (1938), Coudenhove-Kalergi spent the war continuing to make the case for European unity. At one point, however, he also proposed to form and head an Austrian government in exile – a suggestion that was ignored by Roosevelt and Churchill.
Cover of a 1934 book by Coudenhove-Kalergi, showing another vision on Pan-Europe: without Europe's colonies, including the territory of the entire Soviet Union.
Image: public domain.
After the war, it was others who led Europe towards greater integration, although Churchill lauded the count's Pan-European Union for its work in a speech in 1946 in Zürich. Coudenhove-Kalergi was instrumental in founding the European Parliamentary Union in 1947 and in 1950 was the very first recipient of the annual Charlemagne Prize, awarded by the city of Aachen for work in the service of European unification.
Coudenhove-Kalergi's grave, near Gstaad, carries the epitaph: Pionnier des États-Unis d'Europe. For all its simplicity, that sounds a bit grandiose – he was not directly involved in founding the EU or any of its precursors – not to say premature: today's European Union is not (yet) the dreaded monolithic superstate evoked by the epithet 'United States of Europe'.
Nonetheless, proponents of (further) European integration happily praise the count's life-long devotion to the cause. Streets and squares throughout Europe – although admittedly never the longest or largest ones – carry his name.
On the other hand, opponents of European integration from the nationalist and identitarian camp denounce the so-called Kalergi Plan, a plot to use immigration to dilute Europe's 'whiteness', supposedly penned by the "cosmopolitan" count. It's a hoax on a par with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, unfortunately also by token of its continued currency among those fringe groups.
Strange Maps #1002
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
As bad as this sounds, a new essay suggests that we live in a surprisingly egalitarian age.
- A new essay depicts 700 years of economic inequality in Europe.
- The only stretch of time more egalitarian than today was the period between 1350 to approximately the year 1700.
- Data suggest that, without intervention, inequality does not decrease on its own.
Economic inequality is a constant topic. No matter the cycle — boom or bust — somebody is making a lot of money, and the question of fairness is never far behind.
A recently published essay in the Journal of Economic Literature by Professor Guido Alfani adds an intriguing perspective to the discussion by showing the evolution of income inequality in Europe over the last several hundred years. As it turns out, we currently live in a comparatively egalitarian epoch.
Seven centuries of economic history
Figure 8 from Guido Alfani, Journal of Economic Literature, 2021.
This graph shows the amount of wealth controlled by the top ten percent in certain parts of Europe over the last seven hundred years. Archival documentation similar to — and often of a similar quality as — modern economic data allows researchers to get a glimpse of what economic conditions were like centuries ago. Sources like property tax records and documents listing the rental value of homes can be used to determine how much a person's estate was worth. (While these methods leave out those without property, the data is not particularly distorted.)
The first part of the line, shown in black, represents work by Prof. Alfani and represents the average inequality level of the Sabaudian State in Northern Italy, The Florentine State, The Kingdom of Naples, and the Republic of Venice. The latter part, in gray, is based on the work of French economist Thomas Piketty and represents an average of inequality in France, the United Kingdom, and Sweden during that time period.
Despite the shift in location, the level of inequality and rate of increase are very similar between the two data sets.
Apocalyptic events cause decreases in inequality
Note that there are two substantial declines in inequality. Both are tied to truly apocalyptic events. The first is the Black Death, the common name for the bubonic plague pandemic in the 14th century, which killed off anywhere between 30 and 50 percent of Europe. The second, at the dawn of the 20th century, was the result of World War I and the many major events in its aftermath.
The 20th century as a whole was a time of tremendous economic change, and the periods not featuring major wars are notable for having large experiments in distributive economic policies, particularly in the countries Piketty considers.
The slight stall in the rise of inequality during the 17th century is the result of the Thirty Years' War, a terrible religious conflict that ravaged Europe and left eight million people dead, and of major plagues that affected South Europe. However, the recurrent outbreaks of the plague after the Black Death no longer had much effect on inequality. This was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the adaptation of European institutions to handle pandemics without causing such a shift in wealth.
In 2010, the last year covered by the essay, inequality levels were similar to those of 1340, with 66 percent of the wealth of society being held by the top ten percent. Also, inequality levels were continuing to rise, and the trends have not ended since. As Prof. Alfani explained in an email to BigThink:
"During the decade preceding the Covid pandemic, economic inequality has shown a slow tendency towards further inequality growth. The Great Recession that began in 2008 possibly contributed to slow down inequality growth, especially in Europe, but it did not stop it. However, the expectation is that Covid-19 will tend to increase inequality and poverty. This, because it tends to create a relatively greater economic damage to those having unstable occupations, or who need physical strength to work (think of the effects of the so-called "long-Covid," which can prove physically invalidating for a long time). Additionally, and thankfully, Covid is not lethal enough to force major leveling dynamics upon society."
Can only disasters change inequality?
That is the subject of some debate. While inequality can occur in any economy, even one that doesn't grow all that much, some things appear to make it more likely to rise or fall.
Thomas Piketty suggested that the cause of changes in inequality levels is the difference in the rate of return on capital and the overall growth rate of the economy. Since the return on capital is typically higher than the overall growth rate, this means that those who have capital to invest tend to get richer faster than everybody else.
While this does explain a great deal of the graph after 1800, his model fails to explain why inequality fell after the Black Death. Indeed, since the plague destroyed human capital and left material goods alone, we would expect the ratio of wealth over income to increase and for inequality to rise. His model can provide explanations for the decline in inequality in the decades after the pandemic, however- it is possible that the abundance of capital could have lowered returns over a longer time span.
The catastrophe theory put forth by Walter Scheidel suggests that the only force strong enough to wrest economic power from those who have it is a world-shattering event like the Black Death, the fall of the Roman Empire, or World War I. While each event changed the world in a different way, they all had a tremendous leveling effect on society.
But not even this explains everything in the above graph. Pandemics subsequent to the Black Death had little effect on inequality, and inequality continued to fall for decades after World War II ended. Prof. Alfani suggests that we remember the importance of human agency through institutional change. He attributes much of the post-WWII decline in inequality to "the redistributive policies and the development of the welfare states from the 1950s to the early 1970s."
What does this mean for us now?
As Professor Alfani put it in his email:
"[H]istory does not necessarily teach us whether we should consider the current trend toward growth in economic inequality as an undesirable outcome or a problem per se (although I personally believe that there is some ground to argue for that). Nor does it teach us that high inequality is destiny. What it does teach us, is that if we do not act, we have no reason whatsoever to expect that inequality will, one day, decline on its own. History also offers abundant evidence that past trends in inequality have been deeply influenced by our collective decisions, as they shaped the institutional framework across time. So, it is really up to us to decide whether we want to live in a more, or a less unequal society."
Our love-hate relationship with browser tabs drives all of us crazy. There is a solution.
- A new study suggests that tabs can cause people to be flustered as they try to keep track of every website.
- The reason is that tabs are unable to properly organize information.
- The researchers are plugging a browser extension that aims to fix the problem.
A lot of ideas that people had about the internet in the 1990s have fallen by the wayside as technology and our usage patterns evolved. Long gone are things like GeoCities, BowieNet, and the belief that letting anybody post whatever they are thinking whenever they want is a fundamentally good idea with no societal repercussions.
While these ideas have been abandoned and the tools that made them possible often replaced by new and improved ones, not every outdated part of our internet experience is gone. A new study by a team at Carnegie Mellon makes the case that the use of tabs in a web browser is one of these outdated concepts that we would do well to get rid of.
How many tabs do you have open right now?
We didn't always have tabs. Introduced in the early 2000s, tabs are now included on all major web browsers, and most users have had access to them for a little over a decade. They've been pretty much the same since they came out, despite the ever changing nature of the internet. So, in this new study, researchers interviewed and surveyed 113 people on their use of — and feelings toward — the ubiquitous tabs.
Most people use tabs for the short-term storage of information, particularly if it's information that is needed again soon. Some keep tabs that they know they'll never get around to reading. Others used them as a sort of external memory bank. One participant described this action to the researchers:
"It's like a manifestation of everything that's on my mind right now. Or the things that should be on my mind right now... So right now, in this browser window, I have a web project that I'm working on. I don't have time to work on it right now, but I know I need to work on it. So it's sitting there reminding me that I need to work on it."
You suffer from tab overload
Unfortunately, trying to use tabs this way can cause a number of problems. A quarter of the interview subjects reported having caused a computer or browser to crash because they had too many tabs open. Others reported feeling flustered by having so many tabs open — a situation called "tab overload" — or feeling ashamed that they appeared disorganized by having so many tabs up at once. More than half of participants reported having problems like this at least two or three times a week.
However, people can become emotionally invested in the tabs. One participant explained, "[E]ven when I'm not using those tabs, I don't want to close them. Maybe it's because it took efforts [sic] to open those tabs and organize them in that way."
So, we have a tool that inefficiently saves web pages that we might visit again while simultaneously reducing our productivity, increasing our anxiety, and crashing our machines. And yet we feel oddly attached to them.
Either the system is crazy or we are.
Skeema: The anti-tab revolution
The researchers concluded that at least part of the problem is caused by tabs not being an ideal way of organizing the work we now do online. They propose a new model that better compartmentalizes tabs by task and subtask, reflects users' mental models, and helps manage the users' attention on what is important right now rather than what might be important later.
To that end, the team also created Skeema, an extension for Google Chrome, that treats tabs as tasks and offers a variety of ways to organize them. Users of an early version reported having fewer tabs and windows open at one time and were better able to manage the information they contained.
Tabs were an improvement over having multiple windows open at the same time, but they may have outlived their usefulness. While it might take a paradigm shift to fully replace the concept, the study suggests that taking a different approach to tabs might be worth trying.
And now, excuse me, while I close some of the 87 tabs I currently have open.