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Poe as a Popularizer of Nineteenth-Century Sceince

Sir Isaac Newton Working on Geometric Problem – 1795 Ink and Water Color by William Blake (Public Domain Image from www.blake.archive)

Poe as a Popularizer of Nineteenth-Century Science

Several important modern-day science historians have conceded that their present understanding of how Industrial Age technologies affected society is limited, and some have started to focus their research on this period. Bernard Lightman argues “Scholars have barely scratched the surface in their attempts to understand the popularization of Victorian [nineteenth century] science” (206). He writes, “As scientists became professionalized [during the nineteenth century] and professional scientists began to pursue specialized research highly, the need arose for non-professionals, who could convey the broader significance of many new discoveries to a rapidly growing…reading public” (187). He proposes that the nineteenth century “popularizers of science” may have been more important than that of Huxley or the Tyndall [important nineteenth-century scientists] in shaping the understanding [of science] in the minds of the reading public…” (188).

During this period, there was a need for a new class of writers who could write about emerging scientific information in a way the new consumers of science information could understand, and in ways that was relevant to their daily experiences. The newly emerging class of professional scientists in the United was neither equipped nor interested in communicating with the public. Lightman refers to those writers who did attempt to communicate to the public about science as the “popularizers of science,” and suggests that “Their success… was partially due to their ability to present the huge mass of scientific fact in the form of compelling stories…” (188). Therefore, he suggests that it is essential for our present understanding of nineteenth-century culture to explore writers like Edgar Allan Poe, who skillfully and prolifically commented on many of the important popular scientific trends of his lifetime. John Tresch asserts, “Poe’s writings force us to reconsider the relationship between science and literature” (The British Journal of Science, 275-276). Also, in Between Science and Literature, Peter Swirski argues that Poe’s “writing may be a suitable barometer of the role that science and philosophy had on nineteenth-century society… and that he threw “literary bridges over to the scientific mainland,” These bridges, he concludes, were just as important in helping is to understand how scientific changes influenced society as they are in helping us to understand how literature started to change to reflect scientific developments (X-XI). John Limon, writing in The Place of Fiction in the Time of Science writes that Poe engaged in literary “negotiation with science,” asserting that his works both foreshadowed and critiqued several emerging scientific developments and trends of the future (19). Faytor also argues “there was a two-way traffic between science and science-writers in the nineteenth century. He notes that many of the inventions and writings of professional scientists helped to shape science fiction and that many ideas imagined by science fiction writers found their way into actual scientific inventions. (256). Most scholars acknowledge that Poe was one of the most important leaders in developing both the genres of science fiction and detective fiction. His works in those areas provide abundant examples that he anticipated and forecasted future developments which are accepted today in a variety of technical areas such as exploration of the Poles, astronomy, physics, space travel, photography, electronic communications, replacement of body parts, and the forensic sciences.

During Poe’s lifetime, lay writers or those without “letters” who were interested in writing about science struggled with professional scientists to establish their authority to speak about the newly emerging scientific issues. Poe had not received much formal training as a scientist but had considerable exposure to science ideas in his early education, in his technical experiences in the military, and through his exposure to science news stories as a journalist. He believed that an observant and skilled writer (like himself) was more qualified to interpret and discuss the meaning and impact of the newly emerging sciences and technologies than most professional scientists.

Poe looked not only to the events of his era to inform his view of truth in his science writing, but he was also inspired and informed by several of the most renown philosophers and science writers of antiquity. In his 1848 culminating science narrative, Eureka A Prose Poem, he outlined the development of scientific thinking from antiquity through his era, and provided his own unique theories about the creation, operations, and destiny of humanity and the Universe. A list of the ancient writers of science and the philosophy of science he commented on in Eureka includes Archimedes, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Kepler, Francis Bacon, and Sir Isaac Newton. Also in Eureka, he discussed the works of philosophers and scientists closer to Poe’s lifetime such as Auguste Comte, Sir John Herschel, John Stuart Mill, Pierre Simon Laplace, and Friedrich Heinrich Humboldt – to whom Poe dedicated Eureka. Several contextual influences in the areas of literature and technology likely influenced Poe’s subsequent choice to embark on a career that emphasized science narrative writing. These will be discussed in the November 2014 posting. For comments, contact murray@poemuseum.org or ellisonms2@vcu.edu

Sources:
Faytor, Paul. “Strange New Worlds of Space and Time: Late Victorian Science and Science Fiction.” Victorian Science in Context. Ed. Barnard A. Lightman. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1997.
Limon, John. The Place of Fiction in the Time of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Lightman, Bernard. Victorian Science in Context. Ed. University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Swirski, Peter. Between Literature and Science: Poe, Lem, and Explorations in Aesthetics, Cognitive Science, and Literary Knowledge. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2000.
Tresch, John. “The Potent Magic of Verisimilitude: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mechanical Age.” The British Journal of Science 3.3 (1997): 275-90. Web. 15 Mar. 2013.
_______. The Romantic Machine. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Sir Isaac Newton Working on Geometric Problem