Did Edgar Allan Poe solve Olbers’ Paradox?

Here’s a riddle for you. If the Universe has infinitely many stars, then presumably, the night sky should be filled with light–right? So, then, why isn’t it? Welcome to Olbers’ Paradox.

There are many possible explanations:

  1. There’s too much dust to see the distant stars.
  2. The Universe has only a finite number of stars.
  3. The distribution of stars is not uniform.  So, for example, there could be an infinity of stars,
    but they hide behind one another so that only a finite angular area is subtended by them.
  4. The Universe is expanding, so distant stars are red-shifted into obscurity.
  5. The Universe is young.  Distant light hasn’t even reached us yet.

This idea can be traced as far back as Kepler in 1610. Olbers popularized it in the 19th century, confounding scientists and philosophers alike. But what if I told you that author Edgar Allan Poe was the first who posed a possible solution? Poe wrote the following passage in “Eureka: A Prose Poem,” published in 1848:

“Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present us a uniform luminosity, like that displayed by the Galaxy–since there could be absolutely no point, in all that background, at which would not exist a star. The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing that the distance o the invisible background [is] so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all.”

Veritably, Poe was not a scientist. He was an author who wrote compelling science fiction that remains salient even in today’s literary landscape. However, it’s interesting to think that even from a speculative standpoint, he was able to provide primitive insight on the answer to this cosmological conundrum.

Here’s a beautiful video from the YouTube series Minute Physics explaining how Olbers’ Paradox works:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxJ4M7tyLRE]

Edgar Allan Poe has been an abstruse, enigmatic figure in the literary realm as well as in his personal life. Read about his mysterious death (the day he became nevermore), when–perhaps– he took off “to seek a shelter in some happier star.” 


There were several theories about Edgar Allan Poe’s death, all of them just as mysterious and elusive as he was. The last known sighting of Poe was in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 3, 1879. He was dressed in someone else’s clothes and seemed disoriented (possibly drugged or under the influence of something).

I think the most interesting theory is the one proposing Poe was “cooped” on a local election day of that year. When a person is “cooped,” they’re kidnapped, drugged, or bribed to be dressed up as different people, then taken to the polls to vote multiple times–swaying the vote toward a candidate, depending on who’s behind the cooping.

I once drove to Baltimore for no other reason than visiting Poe’s grave. Though historians would likely disagree, I think it’s better that the exact cause of Poe’s death remains unknown. Edgar Allan Poe: poet, author, native Bostonian, science fiction pioneer. Man of the macabre until the very end–’til he was nevermore.

“The Truth” podcast does a great job at reimagining this bizarre situation in an eerie radio drama. I recommend listening to it. Other theories about his death enumerated here via Wikipedia.

Two Wolves

“The one you feed.”

See larger version of comic here.

Gavin Aung Than is quickly becoming one of my favorite comic books artists. Founder of Zen Pencils, he left a corporate graphic design job to go rogue. He’s inspired by the pathos of great minds past and present. He illustrates inspirational quotes from influential people in history (from Carl Sagan to Walt Whitman and beyond), providing a visual supplment for sage wisdom. I’ll admit–I own quite a few of prints myself.

The Most Beautiful Experience

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and science.”

–Einstein, What I Believe (1930)

(via ScienceNote)

Listen to RadioLab host Robert Krulwich read Einstein’s credo on NPR’s This I Believe, a radio show based on a 1950s series of the same name. There’s also an essay collection in book form. Foreword by Jay Allison, who may have written the most inspiring benediction known to contemporary radio producers.

Digital Comics: Thinking Outside of the Box(es)

This wildly interactive, visually striking comic about how Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter game (while high on LSD) is proof of digital storytelling’s radical change. With many platforms to choose from (tablets, mobile, print, desktops, laptops, etc.) in order to ingest our media, the demand for design is increasing.

Interactive formats for long form reads, magazines, and newspapers are becoming more ubiquitous. For instance, Pup Contemplates the Heat Death of the Universe was one of the first of its kind in challenging traditional panel formats for comics. Even the 2012 U.S. election was captured in graphic novel form.

Here’s Scott McCloud’s inspiring TEDTalk about the future of digital comics and storytelling:

“Media provides us with a window back into the world that we live in, and when media evolve so that the identity of the media becomes increasingly unique […] you provide people with multiple ways of re-entering the world.”

Stories no longer have to be static words on a page. New digital storytelling formats bring content alive, stimulating the senses and inviting readers into the story itself.

Fred Hoyle and the Unsteady Steady State Theory

Fred Hoyle coined the name for the Big Bang Theory during a 1949 BBC Radio debate when he stated,  

“These theories were based on the hypothesis that all the matter in the universe was created in one big bang at a particular time in the remote past.”

Ironically, though he originated this term, Hoyle spent most of his academic career developing  an alternative mathematical model of the Universe called the Steady State theory. In this version of the Universe, unlike in the Big Bang Theory, matter is continuously created at a rate that keeps the average density of the Universe the same as it expands. Though this idea is discredited today, it pushed Big Bang supporters to back up their theory with evidence.

In a 1969 BBC special, Fred Hoyle reflects on his Steady State theory:

Rumor has it that the Steady State Theory was inspired by the 1945 ghost movie Dead of Night. The movie consists of a series of ghost stories, but the final scene contains a twist: the movie ends just like it began. The plot was circular, with no beginning or end–which, Hoyle and his colleagues proposed, was how the Universe worked. Instead of having a beginning or end, the Universe simply “was.”

Thanks to YouTube, I was able to find the full version of Dead of Night online, for anyone curious enough to watch:


While Hoyle was a viewed as a repugnant contrarian by his peers, he was warmly accepted by lovers of BBC radio. In the 1950s, the BBC decided to air science lectures every Saturday evening, to which Hoyle contributed five lectures. The series was called “The Nature of the Universe” and ended up mesmerizing the nation, inspiring the next generation of astronomers. (Listen to one of his radio lectures here.)

This post was largely inspired by Michio Kaku’s Parallel Worlds, which keeps my head constantly spinning. Pick up a copy; you won’t be disappointed. More contemporary BBC Science lectures can be found here via podcast.

A Series of Tubes

View the original entry on Public Radio Exchange’s (PRX) blog.

All right, I admit it. I’m in love with steampunk. In October, I attended Bruce Rosenbaum’s talk at Creative Mornings: Boston. (If you don’t know who Bruce Rosenbaum is, don’t fret. I didn’t either before the seminar, but I won’t forget now.) A designer by day and the founder of ModVic, Bruce Rosenbaum has converted his entire house in Sharon, MA, into a steampunk paradise. I’m talking about gadgets with gears, brass-laden furniture, old wood-fire stoves and massive pipe organs repurposed to fit a modern household.

I couldn’t help but think of Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible episode, “A Series of Tubes.” Pneumatic tubes, that is. This refers to an early 20th century system of underground, steam-powered tubes used to deliver messages (almost) instantaneously. (Think of it as an analog form of text messaging.)

Some of you may be thinking, “So what?” Underground tubes and brass gadgets are cool, but isn’t this kind of, well, outdated? What’s the appeal?

Let’s think about it. In a world where things are increasingly digitized, the basis of steampunk’s appeal lies in the fact that it romanticizes tangible technology. It answers the question, “What if the Steam Age and Industrial Revolution happed at the same exact time?” Steampunk re-imagines a reality in which the modern and the antique co-exist artfully and meaningfully. Take a listen to this episode of 99% Invisible for more insight on this retro-futuristic world. You can call it fantasy or science fiction. You can even call it absurd. As for me, I’ll just call it awesome.

If you’re still interested in learning more, check out this PBS special on the genre.