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:
- There’s too much dust to see the distant stars.
- The Universe has only a finite number of stars.
- 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.
- The Universe is expanding, so distant stars are red-shifted into obscurity.
- 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.”