Fragment: Harmonious Triads

“Debates concerning Paganini’s controversial virtuosity raged throughout European bourgeois and aristocratic circles. He himself reportedly started the legend that he had obtained his unparallelled skill from the Devil, continuing a centuries-old trope of violinists’ deals with Satan. His fourth string, which was rumored to be composed of the intestine of his mistress whom he purportedly murdered, elicited wondrous melodic tones. The rumors continued. He supposedly spent twenty years in prison for his murderous deed, accompanied only by his violin. During this time in solitary confinement, he was able to ferret out the secrets of his instrument, inventing a new fingering technique. As fantastic as these tales are, they seem to pale in insignificance to his very real performances. Whenever he broke a string from his passionate and forceful playing, he compensated without missing a beat, by continuing the piece with only three strings. Should another break, he could play with two. Indeed, his coup de grace was his uncanny ability to play an entire piece on only one string.”

Jackson, Myles. (2006) Harmonious Triads: Physicists, Musicians, and Instrument Makers in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Cambridge: The MIT Press. 253.

Time’s Arrow and the Vastness of Space: Huw Price and the Ekpyrotic Model of the Universe

As Price indicates in his work Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point, in the modern cosmological picture there exists a “basic dilemma” when it comes to trying to steer a path between two possibilities that most physicists find unacceptable. These two “pillars”, as it were, are the idea of a Gold universe, in which the “smooth” or low entropy Big Bang is understood in relation to the temporal symmetry of nature; and the question that if this were not the case then how could either end be expected to be smooth in the first place? As Price says, he wants to: “discuss some of the ways in which cosmology might be able to avoid the dilemma—to steer a middle course, in effect”. In steering this course between the two pillars Price leans decidedly on the side of a Gold universe in order to argue his point, despite the fact that he also wishes to present a view of the universe in which time is also symmetrical.

While Price was writing in 1996, another theory which could explain the relative smoothness of the Big Bang would be the Ekpyrotic model, or its descendents, which was first proposed by Cosmologists Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok in a paper published on August 15th 2001. It may be that these models of a cyclic universe would not be mutually exclusive, and indeed, would perhaps even allow for the kind of time symmetry that Price has been arguing for all along.

The Gold universe was first proposed in the early 60s by Cosmologist Thomas Gold. It establishes that the smoothness of the Big Bang could be explained if we accept that the expansion of the universe allows for more possibilities for the arrangement of matter, thus resulting in something that looks like the thermodynamic arrow of time. In a contracting universe, however, “the reverse would happen: entropy would decrease, because the contraction reduces the total stock of possibilities”. Price ultimately finds this explanation untenable; however, he does see the model itself as asking the hard question of how the original smoothness of the Big Bang makes sense. For if it were symmetrical, at least, we would only have to deal with why the two “points” of the expansion and contraction were special, rather than also trying to explain why time is fundamentally asymmetric in a universe were almost all other natural phenomena are symmetrical.

This is the point Price wishes to make from his introduction of the basic dilemma: it makes much more sense, given the symmetry of physical laws, that time should not be seen as an asymmetric phenomenon. Yet there is another pillar to his basic dilemma that Price occasionally touches upon, but does not treat as rigorously as his main project of proving the symmetry of time. That is the possibility that the smooth Big Bang could be the result of chance in a higher order universe; probability alone in such a universe would then account for the phenomenon we observe. A difficulty that Price sees in Ludwig Boltzmann’s attempt to explain the smooth Big Bang in terms of this probability is that “it depends on there being a genuine multiplicity of actual ‘bits’ of a much larger universe, of which our bit is simply some small corner”. This is very odd given Price’s introduction, namely that the virtues of the “Archimedean view from nowhere” is directed towards the ideal of knowledge in a sort of onwards and upwards motion: “at once exciting and terrifying, as a familiar view of our surroundings is revealed to be a limited and self-centered perspective on a larger but more impersonal reality”. Donna Harraway’s critiques of this view from nowhere aside, searching for internal consistency in Price’s thought, how can he present an argument against a theory because “it requires that there be vastly more ‘out there’ than we are ordinarily aware of—even as long range astronomers!”.

To be fair, Price does address this issue sporadically through the text. He points out that this may be the case given some versions of the inflationary theory. Furthermore, his account of the anthropic principle directly addresses this issue. The anthropic principle, in its weak form, states that given the random possibility of configurations for the universe only those that can produce life that will lead to sentience can be observed. Thus these types of universes will appear to be the only possibility for those creatures living within universes that possess smooth beginnings. As Price says, if this is the case then the random prerequisites for such a universe as our own may be extremely unlikely, but it wouldn’t matter as long as “(1) there is enough time in some background grand universe for them to be likely to occur eventually, and (2) it is guaranteed that when they do occur a universe of our sort arises, completely with its smooth boundary”. This is the strongest argument Price raises for the second pillar of the basic dilemma. As he says: “It depends heavily on the right sort of assistance from cosmological theory, but if this were forthcoming the anthropic approach could turn out to explain why we find ourselves in a universe with a low entropy history”. This attempt to steer through the two pillars of the basic dilemma, then, would not imply that there must be a low entropy future for our universe, but it would mean that “there is hugely more to reality than we currently imagine, and even the vast concerns of contemporary astronomy will pail into insignificance in comparison”.

This is the point at which I believe that Price falls into a double standard of his own. The apparent vastness of perspective that he praised in relation to time seems to narrow noticeably when he turns his sights on the spatial limits of existence. In a way this is understandable. Once he has set up the two pillars of his basic dilemma they begin to represent opposing poles of time asymmetry and time symmetry. Given his project then, it is no wonder that he brushes aside the former in favour of the latter. However, in doing so he is making the same mistake in regards to space that he criticizes his opponent for in regards to time.

In the February 2004 issue of Discover Magazine Michael D. Lemonick presents the ideas arrived at by Cosmologists  Steinhardt and Turok. In their view there is in fact a higher order universe in which our own is situated like a two dimensional towel on a clothesline in three dimensional space. As Lemonick states: “string theorists describe our observable universe as a membrane—“brane” for short—flapping in the breezes of the actual 10-dimensional cosmos”. In the Ekpyrotic theory the points of singularity in the cyclic universes of inflationist models are criticized. Lemonick quotes Steinhardt saying: “‘Cyclic-universe models were popular in the 1920s and ’30s,’ Steinhardt says. ‘But they were based on the idea of a Big Bang followed by a Big Crunch followed by another Big Bang’”. The problem that Steinhardt sees here is that the same matter is endlessly recycled, still resulting in an increase in entropy over time which causes each cycle to get longer, and still requires a beginning of the universe. Yet it may be possible to also posit an argument similar to this one in relation to the Gold-like model proposed by Price to “steer” a path in the basic dilemma.

The question then becomes: in a spatially finite universe what began the temporally two-way reaction we know as time? Since Price leans towards the Gold model to the exclusion of the “vastness model” he still has two very strange points with which to deal. Even though neither can be properly thought of as the beginning or the end, it still posits a set polarity to space at both ends of time. Given the unity of space-time, it seems appropriate to argue that the infinity of time would have to be explained using entirely different terms than we presently use if space is still to be understood as finite. The picture changes, however if one considers both space and time to be infinite.

This is the key factor changed in the Ekpyrotic model of the universe. Our universe can be understood as a three dimensional membrane “brane” in a higher dimensional space which itself contains an infinite number of other branes. By the very enormity of these other dimensions we are able to exist right beside another brane much like our own. In this model: “Every trillion years or so, the two membranes collide, unleashing a firestorm of energy analogous to the Big Bang. As in the earlier model, the universe cools, gives rise to galaxies, and eventually expands to near emptiness”. This process never ends for “another collision between membranes then restarts the whole cycle of creation. Thus, time and space are both infinite”. In this model, like the variations of the Gold universe model, thermodynamics has to be understood in a different light. On the scale dealt with by Steinhardt, entropy doesn’t increase, let alone decrease, for “[i]n this new cyclic model, the universe starts essentially empty each time. That means virtually no matter gets recycled. So entropy doesn’t increase, and there is no beginning or end to time”.

In this case, rather  than trying to show how the second law of thermodynamics as a statistical model still allows for what we would consider to be decreasing entropy in one direction (as in the Gold model) a different approach seems more appealing. For is it not both more economical and more likely that the second law of thermodynamic is a law whose strength, like gravity’s in light of quantum physics, only holds given a certain scale? Furthermore, by accepting something akin to the Ekpyrotic model or its offspring, it in fact does not exclude the symmetry of time that Price was defending. The movement of the three dimensional membranes back to one another after their gravity-like forces overcame the forces of the “Big Bang” may look very similar to Price’s argument for the non-directionality of time.

Price’s reinterpretation of Penrose’s astronaut thought experiment is particularly pertinent in understanding this process. Having entered into a black hole (which emulates the physical properties of the theoretical end of the universe) Penrose’s Astronaut appears to produce decreasing entropy in the “universe” of the black hole. As Price writes:  “he is simply a ‘miracle’—an incredibly unlikely chance event. The same goes for his apparatus– in general, for all the ‘foreign’ structure he imports into the hole”. Like the astronaut, each point of the universe at which we have a singularity (the traditional beginning and end) if seen in terms of an Ekpyrotic existence, can be understood in terms of this “miracle” from outside. Each point of singularity can be understood as a point at which the rules governing the larger dimensions affect the three dimensional brane in which we inhabit, resulting in an ultimate symmetry of time in an existence that is also vastly larger than we have ever imagined.

If this is the case the very notion of the basic dilemma itself is a problem for those who wish to try and understand the singularities of symmetrical time in terms of a higher dimensional space. Instead, a reinterpretation of the meaning of the Ekpyrotic universe, or of others like it, would be able to unify both the pillars of “vastness” and the Gold model in Price’s basic dilemma. In this case Price’s double standard of spatial finitude has replaced the double standard of temporal asymmetry. While his positing of basic dilemma sought to steer a course between these two problems, it favours time symmetry, and restricts the vastness of the universe to a role as something very similar to the problem it was intended to counter. The view of existence resulting from an attempt to synthesise these two positions, however, would involve a leap, as Price said “at once exciting and terrifying, as a familiar view of our surroundings is revealed to be a limited and self-centered perspective on a larger but more impersonal reality”. It would mean, as Lemonick suggested, that “everything that astronomers have ever observed is just a speck within the higher dimensions, and all of history since the Big Bang is but an instant in the infinity of time”. Thus it seems that the pillars of the basic dilemma first mentioned at the beginning of this discussion are nothing less than the Pillar’s of Hercules themselves. They represent the final departure point between the universe as cosmologists have hitherto perceive of it and present possibilities that seem to land outside the bounds of all human reason, sense and understanding, but are nevertheless tantalizing, and inviting.

For More Information:

Price, Huw. Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point: New Directions for the Physics of Time. New York: Oxford University press, 1997.

Lemonick, Michael. Discover Magazine, Vol. 25, No. 2, Before the Big Bang (Feb., 2004), 1-5. Discover Media LLC.

Quantum Eyes, Minds and Mysticism

A comic description of quantum entanglement by Jim Ottaviani

There have been suggestive findings indicating that the European Robin is better able to maintain a state of quantum entanglement than can be achieved in any contemporary laboratory…. In its eyes. This has raised a bit of a hubbub since it is one of the most dramatic cases to date of the ability of biological systems to take advantage of quantum mechanical effects. Apparently, it may be what allows robins and other animals to navigate based on the Earth’s magnetic field.

Quantum entanglement is the condition whereby electrons that are spatially distant are nonetheless able to effect the behaviour of other electrons with which they are entangled. Apparently, faster than the speed of light.

The example used by Jim Ottaviani in his comic on the subject describes two dice, each in a state of quantum entanglement with the other. You could then take those two dice to opposite ends of the galaxy and, rolling one, know faster than information should be able to travel (i.e. faster than the speed of light) that whatever you rolled on the first dice would also be rolled on the second. The manipulation of this effect could make teleportation possible, but, like most things in the world of quantum mechanical effects, states of quantum entanglement are short lived, and liable to collapse.

I first came across the case of the robin’s eyes at the “Witches Voice”. For those not familiar with the popular debates surrounding quantum mechanics and biology, it may seem strange that a news agency that describes itself as “a proactive educational network providing news, information services and resources for and about Pagans, Heathens, Witches and Wiccans” would have any interest in the subject. Yet there has been an ongoing and often unkind debate surrounding the relation of quantum mechanics to biological beings in general and sentient beings in particular which has caused many politically powerful commentators to shy away from the subject as being “quantum mysticism” or “quantum biological pseudoscience”. As early as 1934 J. B. S. Haldane (F.R.S) was theorizing about the the important consequences of quantum mechanics for biology and the philosophy of mind, yet it was only in the 90s and 2000s that these linkages became popular currency.

And so from European Robins we turn to the film “What tнē #$*! D̄ө ωΣ (k)πow!?” or “What the Bleep do we know?!” (2004), which is probably the most well known representation of the kind of quantum mysticism attacked by the standard bearers of hard headed, serious science. While I myself would characterize the film as a feel good quantum fable about the powers of positive thinking, there are those in the scientific community who see it as a palpable threat.

Those who describe themselves as scientific skeptics have set out to ridicule and discredit the film’s underlying premises as soft minded pseudoscience. While I agree that this film in particular is quite light on epistemological reflexivity and care, the scorn that it has attracted belays something that is even more vexing. From the comedian Tim Minchin’s parody of the “water memory” hypothesis for the efficacy of some homeopathic cures to the constant echoing of Richard Dawkins’ 1996 assertion: “By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out”, it is far too easy to make fun of small groups of eccentrics whose explorations and ponderings may or may not lead them anywhere productive. At best it is misguided, at worse, cruel and driven by a kind of disciplinary and social power politics.

Yet in the same way that the robin’s eyes were the occasion and not really the cause of the wild interest among internet commentators, the attacks on quantum mysticism are not fundamentally about the role of quantum mechanics in the phenomena of consciousness or whether or not water has a kind of memory as they are about the reactionary feelings of a scientific establishment that understands itself to be embattled by the forces of organized religion and irrationalism. In the United States in particular this reactionary tendency is understandable, but even then it misses the point on a number of levels, and at its worst is itself a kind of irrationalism.

Firstly, since antiquity groups claiming to be defenders of reason and religious orthodoxy alike have attacked marginalized intellectual communities such as the gnostic and hermetic philosophers to gain political capital in their larger projects, yet this has only really delivered substantial returns when they were trying to court one another’s favour. Orthodox Christians would distance themselves from the Gnostics in their exchanges with Platonists in an attempt to gain legitimacy in their eyes, while Platonist groups often distanced themselves from hermetic and mystical branches of Platonism to demonstrate how their ideas represented the religion of reason.

Secondly, even assuming that the people supporting quantum mysticism are the same supporting the Abrahamic domination of secular society, there are at least a hundred years of history showing how the traditional methods of scorn and refutation do not work (there is a worthwhile article of Dostoevsky’s and Mendeleev’s criticism of spiritualism that brings this point out well).

Thirdly, if the explorers of quantum mysticism are diving into intellectually shallow waters, why so much scorn and recrimination? It seems to speak more of a bad conscience and the aggressively territorial concerns of science as a discipline than scientific methodology and magnanimous reflection.

William Crookes helped to set the stage for the development of wireless telegraphy with his experiments to detect the electro-magnetic presence of ghost, Johannes Kepler’s astronomical discoveries cannot be separated from his astrological concerns and the discovery of the unconscious or subliminal self cannot be divorced from the interest in spiritual mediums and spirit possession in the nineteenth century, so why then should even the most practical of scientists and scientistic defenders not give the stranger and more furtive branches of exploration their own space and place of self-expression?

Most recently an episode of the series “Through the Wormhole” has been brought to my attention, where a number of interesting, quantum/consciousness parallels have been discussed. It’s certainly worth exploring for anyone, mystic, scientistic, or otherwise interested in a debate which as of yet is far from settled.

For More Information: (New! as of February 13th 2013)

Haldane, J.B.S. Jan., 1934. “Quantum Mechanics as a Basis for Philosophy”. In Philosophy of Science. Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 78-98
Gordin, Michael D. 2001. “Loose and Baggy Spirits: Reading Dostoevskii and Mendeleev.” In Slavic Review. 60 (4): 756-780.

North American Robin, Photo by Mark Noseworthy

Helmholtz, Perception and Progress Naturalized

Herman von Helmholtz, whose name so often conjures images of thermodynamics, electricity or heat death, was also the teacher of of Heinrich Hertz, friend of Lord Kelvin and a major figure in 19th century physics. Despite his proclivity for the physical sciences, though, Helmholtz began his career as a doctor, and during that time invented the ophthalmoscope, for examining the human eye. This beginning is noteworthy, considering Helmholtz’s life-long interest in Neo-Kantian thought and the nature of human perception. When combined with his views on thermodynamics these interests present an unusual picture of progress in human life.

In looking at his philosophy of science it is possible to see an implicit consequence of Helmholtz’s understanding of force, law and knowledge. It suggests a notion of progress, which can be understood as a force produced in an analogous fashion to those produced by steam or wind, but acting on human knowledge as mediated through the senses.

According to Helmholtz, the underlying unity of phenomena is what makes them knowable, for knowledge consist of establishing laws encapsulating isolated facts. Yet it can only do this when there is something common underlying those individual facts. In nature, this commonality is made possible by the law of conservation of force. In light of the impossibility of perpetual motion and second law of thermodynamics; however, this same commonality could allow for a definite direction to the “force” of human knowing, resulting in progress. Thus an interesting symmetry can be seen between human knowledge and nature in which each acts upon the other in terms of forces largely understood in physical terms.

It seems safe to say that for Helmholtz progress occurs in the world, it is characterized by change, and all changes are ultimately changes of motion. Thus, when considering his deterministic views of nature and the human, progress must in some ways be accounted for in naturalistic terms involving a kind of motion. If not placed in the knowledge deriving capacity of a human actor, and the mirroring that capacity must have with the laws of nature to enable the objectivity and coherence of knowledge, we would be at a loss in attempting to account for a naturalized version of progress in a Helmholtzian framework.

In his popular lectures a symmetry can be seen between knowledge and nature made possible by the commonalities underlying forces. We can only see laws amongst the disparate facts of nature thanks to our perceptions. These perceptions are involuntary. They are rooted in natural processes and the unity of forces that make change both possible as well as comprehensible. This has the consequence that all of human knowledge, its society, arts and sciences, are themselves subject to natural laws acting in ways analogous to the more straightforward laws of the physical sciences. These laws have the power to influence human knowledge, both by acting on it as an external constraint, as well as through their actions produced by our knowledge of them. In considering the impossibility of perpetual motion and the second law of thermodynamics, more than merely making knowledge of nature possible, this approach also weds progress and directionality to knowledge as a consequence of the laws of physics. Thus, in this potential reading of Hemlholtz, progress could be seen as a force acting in a deterministic way on humanity, expanding its reaches until, at its final expiration, it achieves its destiny.

For More Information:

Helmholtz, Hermann von. “On the Aim and Progress of Physical Science” in Science and

Culture: Popular and Philosophical Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.

—. “On the Conservation of Force” in Science and Culture: Popular and Philosophical

Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.

—. Helmholtz’s Treaties on Physiological Optics. Ed and Trans. James P. C. Southall.

Vol 3. The Optical Society of America; Wisconsin, 1925.

—. “On the Interaction of Natural Forces” in Science and Culture: Popular and

Philosophical Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.

—. “On the Origin of the Planetary System” in Science and Culture: Popular and

Philosophical Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995.

—. “The Relation of Natural Science to Science in General” in Science and Culture:

Popular and Philosophical Essays. Ed. David Cahan. The University of Chicago Press; Chicago, 1995.

Secondary Sources:

Cahan, David. “Helmholtz and the Civilizing Power of Science” in Herman von

Helmholtz and the Foundations of Nineteenth Century Science. Ed. David Cahan. University of California Press; Los Angeles, 1993.

Dale, Peter Allan. In Pursuit of a Scientific Culture: Science, Art and Society in the

Victorian Age. The University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, 1989.

Oxford-Duden German Dictionary. Ed. W. Scholze-Stubenrecht, J.B. Sykes, et al. Oxford

University Press: Oxford, 2005.

Smith, Crosbie and M. Norton Wise. Energy and Empire: a Biographical Study of Lord

Kelvin. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1989.

Smith, Crosbie. The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in

Victorian Britain. University Of Chicago: Press Chicago, 1999.

A Cosmological Romance

In 1848 the American writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) went into the publisher George P. Putnam’s (1814-1872) office on Broadway and told him that as of that day he could abandon all of his other projects and dedicate his business to the production and distribution of Poe’s newest work: Eureka: A Prose Poem. The poet first looked upon his publisher with a “glittering eye” and announced, “I am Mr. Poe”. The work was to be his magnum opus, beside which “Newton’s discovery of gravitation was a mere incident”. It would revolutionize the way that humanity understood its place in the world, and as such an initial print run of fifty thousand copies may have been sufficient.

There is no comparable story surrounding Robert Chambers’ (1802-1871) 1844 publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Yet despite this, Chambers’ work has been applauded for bringing an “evolutionary vision of the universe into the heart of everyday life”, with its widespread popularity and influence. In its first print run Poe had difficulty selling five hundred copies of his masterpiece, and his publisher concluded that: “It has never, apparently, caused any profound interest either to popular or scientific readers”. In comparison, Chambers’ work ran into twelve editions at around twenty nine thousand copies. Insofar as it laid the groundwork for the acceptance of the evolutionary theories of the latter half of the nineteenth century, it could be said that Vestiges, rather than Eureka accomplished what Poe had claimed for himself. Charles Darwin’s tombstone in Westminster Abbey, resting just a few meters away from the exalted monument to Isaac Newton, would seem to corroborate this account.

Yet however dissimilar they were in influence and content, there was something in Poe’s Eureka that caused contemporary commentators to link the two works together in the popular press. In examining the similarities and differences of these works and their reception, the question of authority serves as the distinguishing feature that allows us to make sense of their puzzling relationship. Whereas Chambers’ anonymity, and appeals to acceptable theological, logical and scientific sources of authority allowed him to win the hearts of his bourgeoisie audience, Poe had no such support. Instead, he infamously and systematically attacked the very foundations of respectable logic and scientific discourse, and opted for a pantheistic theological underpinning to his cosmology, which flew in the face of all but the most radical of artistic and moral sentiments.

In a February 29th 1848 letter to George E. Isbell, Poe inquired about the substance of Vestiges, of which he admitted he was only partially aware. As he commented:

’The Vestiges of Creation’ I have not yet seen; and it is always unsafe and unwise to form opinions of books from reviews of them. The extracts of the work, which have fallen in my way, abound in inaccuracies of fact: — still these may not materially affect the general argument. One thing is certain; that the objections of merely scientific men—men, I mean, who cultivate the physical sciences to the exclusion, in a greater or less degree, of the mathematics, of metaphysics and of logic – are generally invalid except in respect to scientific details. Of all persons in the world, they are at the same time the most bigoted and the least capable of using, generalizing, or deciding upon the facts, which they bring to light in the course of their experiments. And these are the men who chiefly write the criticisms against all efforts at generalization – denouncing these efforts as ‘speculative’ and ‘theoretical’.

After laying out his own key positions in Eureka, Poe went on to state that: “I would be obliged to you if you would let me know how far these ideas are coincident with those of the ‘Vestiges’”. Here we see Poe indirectly answering criticisms against Vestiges by merely scientific men in much the same way that he criticized those who found fault with his own work. Implicitly, he praises its power of generalization, suggestion, and is willing to forgive the abundance of “inaccuracies of fact” in what he does know about the work, provided that the core of the argument rings true.

While scholars have justifiably focused on the compositional relationship between Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos and Poe’s Eureka, there is still much to be learned from examining the parallel and divergent paths that it traveled along with Vestiges in the cultural context of America in the 1840s. The sensation caused by Vestiges in Britain was echoed across the Atlantic, and part of this echo resonated with both the style and content of Eureka. Both works were the children of the popular press, but one found its audience to spectacular effect, while the other struggled to receive recognition from its intended public. What then can be said about this difference? In large part, they can be attributed to the extreme personality behind Eureka. Impoverished and desperate, Poe could not benefit from the ambiguous authority provided by literary anonymity in the same way as Chambers. Clearly linked to his identity, many suspected a hoax, not in spite of this connection, but because of it. Despite his knowledge of the popular press, he never sought to appeal to the same reform minded and utilitarian principles that made Chambers’ work so appealing to his bourgeoisie audience. What was perhaps more unacceptable to his American audience, Poe’s pantheistic cosmology was clearly and abundantly anathema to traditional religion, while critics of Vestiges were forced to argue instead that its author’s religious platitudes were disingenuous. Furthermore, while both Chambers and Poe drew criticisms for their lack of scientific rigor, Chambers overall project was not as blatantly antagonistic to the authority of the sciences. Yet at the heart of all three of Poe’s problems with traditional modes of authority remains the question of his individual personality and its relationship to the emerging “mass public” that grew out of the communication technologies of the early nineteenth-century. In this context what it evinces, in its most powerful form, is the message that the most successful profits of a new cosmology are those who can afford to remain nameless.

As a side note, not everyone was ambivalent to Eureka. The french loved it, particularly the eminent polymath Paul Valéry and the poet Charles Baudelaire. Its emphasis on the crucial role of inspiration and intuition resonated with Albert Einstein’s approach to science, who also found the work intriguing, and the analytical philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine stated that it was one of the most influential works in his early life that made him interested in philosophy and the philosophy of science.

For More Information See:

Edgar Allan Poe: Critical Assessments. Vol II. Ed. Graham Clarke. Helm Information: Mountfield, 1991.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. (Cooper Square Press: New York, 1992)

“New Publications”. In the Broadway Journal (1845-1846); Jan 18, 1845; American Periodicals Series Online. 45.

Poe, Edgar Allan. ‘Dream-land’, in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. J. A. Harrison. T. Y. Crowell: New York, 1965.

—. Eureka: A Prose Poem. Ed. Stuart Levine and Susan F. Levine. University of Illinois Press: Chicago, 2004.

—. The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. John Ward Ostrom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948.

Secord, James A. Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2000.

Thompson, G.R. “Unity, Death, and Nothingness: Poe’s ‘Romantic Skepticism’”. In PMLA. (Vol. 85. No. 2. 1970) 297-300.

Tresch, John. “The Potent Magic of Verisimilitude: Edgar Allan Poe within the Mechanical Age”. In The British Journal for the History of Science. (Vol. 30. No. 3. 1997) 275-290.

Welsh, Susan. “The Value of Anological Evidence: Poe’s ‘Eureka’ in the Context of a Scientific Debate”. In Modern Language Studies. (Vol 21. No. 4. 1991) 3-15.

The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 3 Vols. Ed. Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Redfield: New York, 1849.

Yeo, Richard. “Science and Intellectual Authority in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Britain: Robert Chambers and ‘Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation’”. In Victorian Studies. (Vol. 28. No. 1. 1984) 5-31.

Have Brain, Will Travel

The epic of Albert Einstein’s brain is a macabre and yet captivating tribute to the cultural impact of “the father of modern physics”.

The story began in 1955, seven hours after Einstein’s death. The attending pathologist who was scheduled to perform the autopsy, Thomas Stoltz Harvey, looking over the body of the embodiment of genius in the 20th century, decided, it is said, that it would be a greater gift to posterity if he took the brain without the family’s permission. While he was at it, he also gave Einstein’s eyes to the physicists optometrist.

Certain that the brain would provide endless opportunities for scientists to look into the stuff of brilliance, Harvey eventually lost almost everything in his efforts to keep it in his possession: his job, his marriage, his house. Striped of these potentially stabilizing factors, he began traveling around America with the brain in the back of his car trying to find people who would appreciate his “gift to science”.

This fact was not widely known until 1978 when a journalist “broke” the story and interviewed the now aged pathologist.

Today a part of Einstein’s brain is in Ontario, most of it was returned to Princeton, but Harvey sent samples to over a dozen different specialists during the time when he was its keeper.

While we don’t often admit it to ourselves, the contemporary fetishization of knowledge has allowed the organ of the intellect to take on an uncanny quality, at once grotesque, and yet captivating. The greater we value the intellect of the person, an associate that intangible quality with the meaty substance of the brain, the grater power the messy physicality of their brain takes on in our imagination. Harvey’s seemingly irrational actions can be seen in this light to be an extreme manifestation of the cult of scientific genius that evolved around Einstein and his accomplishments, and can not be separated from the same impulse that has motivated generations of Catholics to preserve the relics of their own saints.

Not seen in these saintly terms, Harvey died in 2007, and his brain, to the best of my knowledge, was laid to rest with him.

Einstein’s Brain:

For More Information:

Paterniti, Michael. 2001. Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein’s Brain. Dial Press Trade Paperback.

Carolyn Abraham, Possessing Genius: The Bizarre Odyssey of Einstein’s Brain.

(For another scientific relic, see Galileo’s finger: (New!)