How Edgar Allan Poe Exposed Scientific Hoaxes—And Perpetrated Them

16:23 minutes

a simple illustration of edgar allan poe's head set against a color burst of clouds
Credit: Tursunbaev Ruslan/Rene Martin/Shutterstock/Daniel Peterschmidt

“Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!
              Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

When you think of Edgar Allen Poe, poems like “The Raven” and “The Telltale Heart” may pop to mind. But throughout the poet’s life, he was absolutely fascinated by science. His love of subjects like astronomy and physics—along with the tragedy that followed him throughout his life—informed his poems and essays. Through this work, Poe may have also had an impact on science itself.

Poe’s scientific life is investigated in the new book, The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science. In many ways, it explains, Poe’s scientific fascination was a product of its time. He grew up in the early 1800s, which was a time when a widespread thirst for knowledge was beginning to flourish. Poe loved to expose scientific hoaxes, while simultaneously perpetrating them himself. And his self-proclaimed magnum opus, a largely unsuccessful venture, was a nonfiction essay about the nature of the universe, called “Eureka.”

Author John Tresch joins Ira to discuss Poe’s life, legacy, and works. Tresch is professor of history of science at the Warburg Institute in the University of London, based in London, England. 

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Segment Guests

John Tresch

John Tresch is the author of The Reason for the Darkness of the Night, and a professor of History of Science at the University of London in London, England.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. “Leave my loneliness unbroken. Quit the bust above my door. Take thy beak from out my heart and take thy form from off my door. Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

When you think of Edgar Allan Poe, poems like “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” come to mind, right? But what you probably don’t know about Poe is that he was absolutely fascinated by science. His love of subjects like astronomy and physics informed his writing throughout his life. And conversely, Poe may have had an impact on the science that came well after him.

This is all covered in a new book by my guest, John Tresch. John Tresch is author of The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science. He’s professor of history of science at the Warburg Institute University of London. Of course, based in London, England. Welcome to Science Friday.

JOHN TRESCH: I’m really glad to be here.

IRA FLATOW: How did you discover this about Poe, who none of us know anything about it. Were you a Poe scholar and then looked into this?

JOHN TRESCH: No, I was an enthusiast. I’d been read the scary stories that Poe wrote by my mother when I was a kid. And read them in junior high again and again in college, when I learned how influential he was for a lot of poets and authors afterwards. But it was really one book, one collection, by Harold Beaver, The Science Fiction of Edgar Allen Poe, which I borrowed from a friend. And that’s when my eyes were really opened to how widely his interests ranged and how deeply involved in the sciences of his time they were.

And that collection had an amazing set of footnotes, but there wasn’t a single book that tied all Poe’s enthusiasms together. And so I began my research to try to figure out just where Poe fit in the landscape of all the different sciences that were coming into being at his time. And I’ve spent a while writing that. And the book is the result.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk about the book and where he fit in. Because in many ways, you write about Poe’s fascination with science was a product of his time. I mean, he grew up in the early 1800s, which was a time where you write. A widespread thirst for knowledge was beginning to flourish. What was going on at that time that got people so interested in learning about how the world worked?

JOHN TRESCH: Well, there’s a lot of things happening in the early 19th century with science. And some of them are really contradictory. But there’s two big strands of historical development. One is that there’s a huge flourishing of interest in science from everybody. There’s the Lyceum movement, which involves people going from town to town, giving popular lectures in different cities in the Lyceum halls that grew up in lots of American cities.

And these were lectures on everything. Some of them were religion, some of them were literature. But a lot of them were science. And they had a lot of experiments, displays, demonstrations, a lot of speculation about astronomy, about chemistry, about biology. Lots of very hands-on science, like phrenology, but also collecting, like botany. So there was a real general thirst for knowledge.

And that was accompanied by a whole lot of new publications. There was a kind of media explosion of new publications at this time, lots of new journals and magazines. And a real hunger for knowledge. At the same time, lots and lots of people would play into that hunger by having fun with it, by publishing hoaxes, or frauds, or forgeries, taking advantage of people’s belief. So that was one thing that was going on, this kind of very wild and unregulated popular science.

But along with that is another development that’s very important for the development of modern science, which is a number of very well-trained experts saw what was going on in these popular sites and worried that there wasn’t any kind of authority over all of that information being produced. It was impossible to know who to trust, who were the actual reliable scientists, who tested their findings, who had really studied what they were studying with great care.

So that group of scientists got together and tried to put together new institutions at a national level in the US that would be a kind of judge and jury over what counted as true. And those scientists went on to found the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Smithsonian Institute, and other national institutions for science.

So on the one hand, this kind of wild development of new interest in science. And on the other hand, an attempt to really bring it under control in new national institutions. And Poe is really part of both of those movements.

IRA FLATOW: So tell us, how did he get caught up in this new movement or both of these movements?

JOHN TRESCH: Well, he had a very hard life, as you’ll know if you’ve read any of the biographical sketches. And it’s really quite tragic. He was raised in the south, in Richmond, and was adopted, or was raised in a foster family by a very rich man, John Allen, and expected that he would inherit that wealth. But he was kicked out of the house without being adopted. And then had to make it on his own. And really, he experienced great poverty at many points in his life, really to the point of starvation.

He decided to earn his living– after having gone through the army, having spent time at West Point, which is the military academy, where he got a great education in mathematics, he decided to earn his living as a writer. And that was not necessarily from a financial point of view the best decision because it was really hard to earn his keep that way.

But he wrote and read everything that he could. He was publishing constantly in the popular press, in magazines, newspapers, journals, of all sorts. And that meant publishing his poetry, publishing his short stories, but also becoming one of America’s first science reporters.

So he had a journal– in Philadelphia he worked at Burton’s Magazine. And there he had a column that was a chapter in science and arts, which was basically inventorying all the new discoveries and all the new inventions in science and technology and evaluating them on the basis of his own experiences, having worked in the army as an artificer, somebody who makes telescopes and makes munitions, but also at West Point, and just his really voracious reading. So he’s really part of that explosion of popular science.

But he’s also, in a lot of ways, aligned with those science reformers, who wanted to try to regulate and nationalize science, to create a national framework. He thought it was very important to create a national framework for science and for literature. And that’s where he really wanted to contribute in particular, by trying to argue for a more objective criticism in literature.

So science even influenced the way he thought about literature, that it was possible to have a detached view on literature. But he also wrote a great deal of material that was reporting on and even contributing to the science of his time.

IRA FLATOW: And that brings me to this question about why then do we know him for all of his literary, his poetry writings, and not for any of the science work that he did? Why did that not last as well as the poetry did, I guess is what I’m asking?

JOHN TRESCH: Well, we don’t really know many of the popular science writers of the early 19th century. And there’s a sense in which science really kind of doesn’t leave much of a trail in the popular– on the popular side of things. There are a few famous names that we get, like Faraday or Darwin, who are contemporaries of Poe’s. But the kind of mass popular publications of science, not so much. And that’s really where Poe was to a large extent.

That said, he wrote a very popular textbook on collecting shells or conchology, which was sold in popular lectures, which gave people a guidebook for collecting and classifying the different shells you could find along the seashore. And that was a real contribution to the science of the popular– of a popular store. At the end of his life, in 1848, he wrote another much more ambitious work, called Eureka, which was an explanation of the material and spiritual universe.

And this was a cosmology, a kind of history of the world that borrowed from astronomy, biology, physics, chemistry of his time, and a lot of the philosophy and science of his time. He thought that this would transform philosophy and science, but it really didn’t have much of an impact in his lifetime. It didn’t have very many readers. It was, by the 1840s, a little too far out, a little too freewheeling for the kind of science that was now being regulated and controlled by the new institutions that had showed up in this period.

So in a way, the fiction and the poetry that he wrote was much more in keeping with what later scholars thought of, and later audiences thought of as proper literature and poetry. Whereas, the science was a little more out there, a little more speculative.

IRA FLATOW: And yet he thought “Eureka” was his most prized piece, right, above “The Raven” or “The Tell Tale Heart.”

JOHN TRESCH: Definitely. He thought that it would revolutionize science. And he wanted his publisher to print 50,000 copies. Ultimately, the publisher did 500 copies and even those didn’t sell out. But he said very explicitly in “Eureka” that he was writing for people who read him after he was dead, not for the people of his time.

And in a way, the reception after he died has been much bigger. There have been many appreciations over the years. Paul Valery, a poet in France in the early 20th century, wrote a very long piece showing the connections between what Poe had done and what Einstein was doing in Valery’s life.

Poe had said that space and duration are one, that space and time are actually equivalent, anticipating a lot of ideas in relativity. And there’s even also a very good argument to be made that the people who founded the Big Bang Theory, Alexander Friedmann and Georges Lemaitre would have known Poe’s work “Eureka” through either Valery or through Poe himself.

So there’s a really strong possibility that even though Poe wasn’t recognized much as a scientist during his time, his major scientific theory “Eureka” had an influence on the cosmology that we now take as the one that explains the universe today.

IRA FLATOW: From what I’ve read, and I’m not a scholar on this, you never hear Einstein or any of the cosmologists quote Poe as someone who came up with these original ideas.

JOHN TRESCH: No, that’s true. And I Einstein even read “Eureka.” Someone, a biographer of Poe, sent him the work. He read it twice. The first time he was very enthusiastic and thought that Poe had really hit on a lot of anticipations of what Einstein and others would say. The second time, later in his career, he was much more skeptical. So no, Einstein is not a huge Poe fan.

But Alexander Friedman, who did come up with the Big Bang, saw Dostoevsky and Poe as his major authors, the ones he preferred the most. He never explicitly cited “Eureka” so at the moment, unfortunately, it’s just that the level of conjecture. But to me it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t read that and in some way have it in the back of his mind when he was coming up with his own theory.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios talking with John Tresch, author of Reason for the Darkness of the Night. He is based in London. We’re talking about Edgar Allan Poe and his work in that book. Poe became a bit of an agitator in the sciences, you write. He loved to expose hoaxes of the time, but also perpetuated science hoaxes himself.

JOHN TRESCH: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: What do you think of that part of his life?

JOHN TRESCH: Well, I think it’s wild. I mean, Poe is an extremely varied author. He has so many different voices, so many different genres, so many different positions that he writes in. That’s part of what makes it hard to recognize the scientific side of his work. But also, to really make sense of his work at all.

He’s constantly contradicting himself. He’s constantly pointing out the flaws of other authors, the imperfections in their writing, the imperfections in their arguments. But he’s also satirically making fun of his own styles, and his own writings, and his own arguments.

So frequently he’ll say something that he himself contradicts in the later work or even later in the same story. And in a way, with science the same thing is true. On the one hand, he’s really promoting new movements to nationalize science. He’s a big supporter of the expedition to the South Seas, which is really the first scientific expedition or really large scientific work that the US government sponsors. And he writes to support it and its proponents very early on.

In his novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, is an imagination of what that expedition might run into when it gets to the South Pole. But he’s also writing his work on conchology, doing the science reporting, championing all the inventions, and new discoveries, and theories of the period.

But then, also, he writes works like The Balloon-Hoax, which says that a balloon has crossed the Atlantic for the first time, a hot air balloon. So it’s a transatlantic flight. And people in New York bought up that paper in great numbers and we’re very excited to hear about this development, but it turned out it never happened. ,

Likewise he wrote some interesting hoaxes based on the popular science of mesmerism, which we now think of as hypnotism, talking about how a man who was dying of consumption was hypnotized on his deathbed and then kept physically alive for seven months while in the mesmeric trance. And that story also turned out not to be true.

So I think he took a great deal of pleasure in pushing people’s beliefs, taking what they already knew and taking them just a bit further into the realm where it wasn’t quite true or wasn’t quite possible to know what the facts in the case were. And he just loved those kinds of jokes, and experiments, and hoaxes just as much as he enjoyed showing how other hoaxes were terrible frauds or terrible forgeries.

So the title, The Forging of American Science has two senses in that way. On the one hand, it’s about the project to build and ground these new institutions that would put science on a solid footing, but it also shows how that’s completely bound up with these forgeries, these frauds, and hoaxes that are so much a part of the popular science of the time and so much a part of Poe’s own writing with relation to science.

IRA FLATOW: We all love the darkness that Poe has in his literary work, in his poems. Does that darkness creep into any of his other writings outside literature, maybe into his writings about science or anything else?

JOHN TRESCH: Definitely. Because he’s got a very complex and somewhat contradictory understanding of knowledge. He certainly believes that it’s possible to arrive at reliable facts and theories about the natural world. But he’s also very insistent on the limits of observation, or empiricism, or induction. He thinks that those are useful tools, but they shouldn’t be taken for the final word, the final story about everything in the world.

He’s very skeptical about human capacity to make sense of nature as a whole. And he sees nature as, on the one hand, full of amazing harmonies and aesthetic unities, but on the other hand, cut through with a kind of darkness, with a kind of chaos, or the tendency towards destruction, just as he sees that in his own mind and in other people’s minds.

There’s amazing constructive possibilities in the human mind and all kinds of capacities of benevolence and love. But on the other hand, there’s a self-destructive streak, what he calls perverseness, that leads him and other people to do the thing that’s exactly against their own interests. And he sees that same kind of self-destructive impulse running through the universe as a whole. And in “Eureka” that shows up as the history of the universe expanding, and constructing, and growing, and then rapidly collapsing, crashing in on itself in the kind of fiery destruction.

So yeah, there’s a lot of interest, and faith, and belief in what science and knowledge can do, but also a sense of the darkness running through our own minds and through the universe as a whole.

IRA FLATOW: John Tresch is author of The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allen Poe and the Forging of American Science. He’s professor of history of science at the Warburg Institute in the University of London based in London, England. Fantastic book, a great read for everybody. I would suggest it.

Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

JOHN TRESCH: Thank you for having me. Great to talk with you.

IRA FLATOW: You can read an excerpt from The Reason for the Darkness of the Night on our website, sciencefriday.com/poe.

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