Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most celebrated poets in the history of the written word. But one of his lesser-known works includes what some people consider the first sketch of what would become the Big Bang Theory. And Poe's mysterious allusion to the Big Bang was written a full century prior to the Big Bang Theory being formally articulated by science.
The name of the piece is Eureka: A Prose Poem. It was the last major piece he completed before dying in 1849. It deals with both cosmology and metaphysics and at the time was panned.
Regardless of its literary merits or lack thereof, it does contain a passage that continues to puzzle readers. It describes a "primordial particle" that expanded rapidly to create the universe. Poe's description of the primordial particle and its expansion bear an eerie symmetry with the Big Bang Theory proper.
“The willing into being the primordial particle, has completed the act, or more properly the conception, of Creation. We now proceed to the ultimate purpose for which we are to suppose the Particle created – that is to say, the ultimate purpose so far as our considerations yet enable us to see it – the constitution of the Universe from it, the Particle."
"This constitution has been effected by forcing the originally and therefore normally One into the abnormal condition of Many…. From the one Particle, as a centre, let us suppose to be irradiated spherically – in all directions – to immeasurable but still to definite distances in the previously vacant space – a certain inexpressibly great yet limited number of unimaginably yet not infinitely minute atoms.”
He goes on to describe "non-luminous suns" populating the universe, roughly analogous to our contemporary "dark matter" hypothesis. Poe also posed the possibility that the universe could cyclically expand and contract an infinite number of times, a theory that also finds common ground with modern astrophysical speculation.
Poe's conceptual model of the universe as he imagined it may seem pedestrian to us in the 21st century. But at the time it was written, it was considered wild-eyed phantasmagoria.
Even more remarkable was the fact that Poe had no formal instruction in natural science or philosophy. An observation that was commented on by T.S. Eliot in a criticism of Eureka. " makes no deep impression, because we are aware of Poe's lack of qualification in philosophy, theology or natural science."
There were a lot of misses in the piece as well. In fact, they outweigh the hits. While some claim that it was just a matter of luck, others see it as a testament to his intellect and imagination. Poe's imagined cosmology wasn't validated as scientifically accurate until the 1960's.
And by Poe's own estimation, he had written something that was more than a daydream. In a letter he penned in 1848, he said of Eureka, "What I have propounded will (in good time) revolutionize the world of Physical & Metaphysical Science, I say this calmly - but I say it."