Halpern, Paul, Wesson, Paul. "1 To See the World in a Grain of Sand: What We Can Observe from Earth." Brave New Universe: Illuminating the Darkest Secrets of the Cosmos. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2006.
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Brave New Universe: Illuminating the Darkest Secrets of the Cosmos
This is an elegant explanation, no doubt. But is it the truth? Sometimes nature baffles us with competing ways of explaining the same effect. The extinction of the dinosaurs, the origin of life, the birth of consciousness, and many other scientific quandaries have triggered formidable debate—with vying accounts struggling for prominence over the years. In this case, science has offered an alternative resolution of Olbers’ paradox—one that is different from the Hubble expansion.
POE’S EUREKA MOMENT
Curiously, the true solution to Olbers’ paradox has a long literary history. In 1848, Edgar Allen Poe published Eureka: A Prose Poem, a volume of his assorted musings about the universe. Recognizing the dilemma of nocturnal darkness, Poe suggested resolution by assuming that light from only a finite set of stars has reached us. As Poe wrote:
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.
In other words, Poe divided the universe into two categories. The first part—only a minute fraction—are the stars close enough for their light to have already reached us. The second region—the majority, by far—consists of unimaginably distant objects emitting rays that have yet to touch Earth’s skies.
If the universe were infinitely old, Poe’s argument wouldn’t hold water. No matter how remote a luminous object, we’d witness its