earlier in the year i did a series of entries on poe's eureka, which was published in 1848 (text of the essay here). i have really basted in it now, and am working toward some sort of illustrated edition with the wonderful artist (and beautiful lover) jane irish. i was saying things like 'reminds me of kierkegaard, but i'm not saying it's comparable to kierkegaard', etc. now, however, i regard the thing with kind of unbounded admiration, which i will express in the following terms.
there is no greater work in philosophy or in natural philosophy, in cosmology or in aesthetics, in the 19th century. i would say there is no more important work, but i don't actually believe that it had any influence, selling just a few copies. (one possibility: it might have leaked into european physics via baudelaire's translation?)
[remark on the text with the image above: it represents a position that poe is ridiculing. there are no degrees of impossibility; something either is or ain't impossible. if it is impossible to imagine a limitless space, and impossible to imagine a limited space, they are exactly equally impossible to imagine. that's not the only spot where he sounds like a slash-and-burn analytic philosopher.]
eureka begins with a methodological essay, in the typically poean form of a letter from the future, found by poe in a corked bottle and dated 2848. in a semi-successful and sort of half-assed satirical way, it attacks rationalism and empiricism, or aristotelian and baconian science, on the grounds that the worst possible idea is to restrict methodologies before you even start your research. and he really attacks the idea that there can be only two roads to truth, or some sort of synthesis of them (as in kant and hegel).
human knowledge - including scientific knowledge - may come through careful observation/experimentation or plodding applications of logical principles to things already known etc. but the real breakthroughs are intuitive, or poetical, or aesthetic, and he quotes kepler among others as saying just that: i guessed these things. (cf einstein: there was little evidence for his biggest ideas when he put them forward: they were confirmed retroactively; they came in flashes of aesthetic/mathematical intuition.)
then he proceeds to blow you away by doing it himself: he gives you extremely clear statements of big-bang-big-crunch cosmology, the cosmological principle, and the multiverse hypothesis. there are possible gropings toward dark matter, the curvature of space, black holes, and many other wild and possibly true notions. now, if anyone else was putting anything like that down in the mid-nineteenth century, i would appreciate someone telling me who it was. (he calls the method intuitive or poetical, but it also included reading all the science and philosophy coming out of europe, and poe read the european languages; the intuitive part comes after absorbing all the available science).
the big bang/expanding universe hypothesis is often attributed to georges lemaitre, in 1927. lemaitre groped much as poe did to name the origin: he used the term 'primeval atom'. poe uses 'primordial Particle'. they conceive it on exactly the same terms. explanations run out for both when it comes to what forces caused this particle, containing all the universe's matter at an excruciatingly dense single point,to explode, but it did: and then matter and perhaps space itself exploded outward in a sphere. eventually the force of this explosion is expended and the dominant gravitational pull for each particle is back toward the center. then the thing crunches at an ever-accelerating rate, etc. after the first event, everything proceeds by regular physical laws. the whole picture is in eureka, i tell you.
that is not to say that everything he says is true or that physicists have come to every single one of his results. for one thing, he does not have sub-atomic particles. but who did? there could be no such things by the definition of 'atom' from the ancients (the smallest indivisible bits). he thinks all atoms are the same, for the universe is the utmost complexity generated by the most simple possible means (it is maximally beautiful in that sense). but perhaps it will turn out that quarks and hadrons etc compose all atoms, or even that they themselves somehow consist of the same sub-sub-atomic particles. also, he thought the universe was contracting rather than expanding at this stage. also his account of planetary formation was wrong, etc.
now, it will be more impressive to you that he anticipated einstein and hawking et al than that he anticipated me, but i have to find the latter impressive too. he should be read as holding that knowledge is merely true belief, deleting the justification condition. he has a relational ontology and an ecstatic vision of all objects as entanglements and of all things as in relation to all things (directly, by gravitational and repulsive physical forces). he centralizes aesthetics in human inquiry, and holds aesthetic properties to be real properties of the universe. (going the other way again, he also gives a clear statement of the coherence theory of truth, which i do reject completely.) (and, to throw in a bit more criticism: the title is unfortunate, and the quality of the writing is a mixed bag; poe's writing is a mixed bag throughout - quite wonderful at times, at others overwrought, clotted, over-elaborate.)
he ends in an ecstatic positive pantheistic vision, reminiscent of emerson, which is extremely surprising, given that he ragged on the transcendentalists mercilessly throughout his career. (the whole is an amazing combination of pointed rationality and epiphanic intuition.) i like this because - honestly - poe was extremely dark, and came by that out of an incredibly difficult life. but it makes me glad too, for that positive vision was almost the last thing he wrote before his death, passed out on the streets of baltimore.
then again, there are many anticipations of the ideas scattered among his writings throughout.