The poet that solved a scientific paradox

Why is the sky black at night?

If the universe is infinitely large and there are infinitely many stars that are randomly placed, then there should be a star at every point in the sky and the sky would be completely covered by stars. The night sky should not be black but filled with stars without spaces, a sparkling, radiant, silvery-white night.

Olbers’ paradox ByKmarinas86 —, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Edgar Allan Poe

The first viable theory for Olbers’ paradox came from someone who may have known much about darkness but who was not a scientist or astronomer. The theory came from the American author and poet Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was born 1809 in Boston and had a dark and black life and died only 40 years old under unclear circumstances, probably in “delirium tremens”. In the last years of his short life, especially after the death of his young wife in tuberculosis, he lived an intense life with both alcohol and drugs but also working with an intensive, almost philosophical, scientific work that he managed to publish in 1848, just one year before his death.

Edgar Allan Poe, daguerreotype 1849, Public Domain,

“La première fois que j’ai ouvert un livre de lui, j’ai vu, avec épouvante et ravissement, non seulement les sujets rêves par moi, mais des phrases, pensées par moi, et écrites par lui, vingt ans auparavant.”

The first time I opened a book he had written, I saw with equal measures of horror and fascination, not just the things that I had dreamed of, but actual phrases that I had designed and that he had penned twenty years earlier.”

In Eureka, Poe describes a kind of pulsating universe very differently from the Newtonian non-expanding universe of the time. Poe suggests an explanation for the night’s dark sky. He writes:

“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 the distance of the invisible background so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all”.

That is, the dark spaces are filled with stars, but which are so far away that the light from them has not yet reached us, because the universe is too young. Which is exactly the answer that scientists today, 150 years and several scientific revolutions later, believe is the solution to Olbers’ paradox.

Photo: Thomas Arctaedius

Professor in entrepreneurship, PhD in Nuclear Physics. Entrepreneur and researcher. From Stockholm Sweden

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