alright, i'm grappling fairly seriously with poe's eureka. it is brilliant.
a few remarks about genre. there is evidently a theory abroad that it's some kind of parody or satire of a scientific paper. not at all. he called it a "prose poem", which really is a joke with a point. it is a completely serious and extremely profound essay in natural philosophy. and it is a very serious scientific treatise by someone who knows himself not to be a working astronomer or physicist, but who has assiduously studied the available writings of those who are. it is fully, pointedly, rational, and systematically presents arguments and proofs.
now, there is a fair amount of religious language, but it is used to express physical laws and events. i'm not saying poe didn't believe in god, but the god he uses here is a deist god, or is explicitly identified with the physical laws of the universe. if the religious language was read out completely, it would still work beautifully, but also there is a sincere undertow that betrays a certain profundity. understand that he's writing in america in 1848, alright? you're going to have to do some translation.
i am going to do a long entry on his method and epistemology, which are extremely sharp and interesting. also i will just remark that the metaphysics and the epistemology are similar to mine in entanglements (forthcoming). i think it is one of the great american philosophical essays.
one question that robinson is asking in the nyrb piece and that others have asked is whether it anticipates bang-and-crunch cosmology. oh yes it does. but there is more. i don't know why i'm always talking about physics when i don't actually know very much about it. but some things are pretty frigging obvious. so, consider the 'cosmological principle' in 20th c physics.
In modern physical cosmology, the cosmological principle is the notion that the distribution of matter in the Universe is homogeneous and isotropic when viewed on a large enough scale, since the forces are expected to act uniformly throughout the Universe, and should, therefore, produce no observable irregularities in the large scale structuring over the course of evolution of the matter field that was initially laid down by the Big Bang. (Wikipedia)
(then they go on, sadly, to define it in terms of observers. poe is aware that he is trying to describe the distribution of matter in the universe, not his own or someone else's mental images. i don't figure he deserves a lot of credit for that; physicists' mistaking their own discipline for psychology seems like an extremely difficult mistake to make.) but anyway, not only does poe formulate it, he formulates it beautifully. and he is arguing for it on the grounds of spherical expanding universe originating at an infinitely dense point of unity. in 1848. he calls what makes it bang a 'divine volition', partly to signal that his own explanation runs out there. here is poe:
I mean to say that our solar system is to be understood as affording a generic instance of these agglomerations [other solar systems, galaxies, and so forth], or, more correctly, of the ulterior conditions at which they arrived. . . . We shall 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. (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.) Our telescopes, at this point, thoroughly confirm our deductions. 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.
Let us now, expanding our conceptions, look upon each of these system as in itself an atom; which in fact it is, when we consider it as but one of the countless myriads of systems which constitute the Universe. Regarding all, then, as but colossal atoms, each with the same ineradicable tendency to Unity which characterizes the actual atoms of which it consists -- we enter at once upon a new order of aggregations. The smaller systems, in the vicinity of a larger one, would, inevitably, be drawn into still closer vicinity. A thousand would assemble here; a million there -- perhaps here, again, even a billion -- leaving, thus, immeasurable vacancies in space. And if, now, it be demanded why, in the case of these systems -- of these merely Titanic atoms -- I speak, simply, of an "assemblage," and not, as in the case of the actual atoms, of a more or less consolidated agglomeration: -- if it be asked, for instance, why I do not carry what I suggest to its legitimate conclusion, and describe, at once, these assemblages of system-atoms as rushing to consolidation in spheres -- as each becoming condensed into one magnificent sun -- my reply is that mellonta tauta -- I am but pausing, for a moment, on the awful threshold of the Future. For the present, calling these assemblages "clusters," we see them in the incipient stages of their consolidation. Their absolute consolidation is to come. (this is at page 1323-24 of the library of america poetry and tales)
as explicitly as possible, he argues that the matter is roughly evenly distributed through the universe if you consider it at a large enough scale and so it can be described mathematically, but if you zoom in to any region, you see radically uneven distributions of matter, each local region being unique.