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.” 

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.