Popularizing Science

Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, from Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds

[Click on image to enlarge] In 1680 a fiery comet caused superstitious panic in Europe. Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657–1757) wrote a comedy making fun of such fear. In 1686 he responded again by reporting the latest news about the cosmos, the findings of Copernicus, Galileo, and other scientists, in a book that any common reader could understand, Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds). No work was more influential in popularizing the facts and the philosophy empowered by the microscope and telescope. Two English translations appeared in 1688. The selections below are from the free and stylish version by Aphra Behn, A Discovery of New Worlds.

 

We went one Evening after Supper to walk in the Park. * * * Do not you believe, madam, said I, that the clearness of this Night exceeds the Glory of the brightest day? I confess, said she, the Day must yield to such a Night. * * * I love the Stars, and could be heartily angry with the Sun for taking them from my sight. Ah, cry'd I, I cannot forgive his taking from me the sight of all those Worlds that are there. Worlds, said she, what Worlds? And looking earnestly upon me, asked me again, what I meant? I ask your Pardon, Madam, said I, I was insensibly led to this fond discovery of my weakness. What weakness, said she, more earnestly than before? Alas, said I, I am sorry that I must confess I have imagined to my self, that every Star may perchance be another World, yet I would not swear that it is so; but I will believe it to be true, because that Opinion is so pleasant to me, and gives me very diverting Idea's, which have fixed themselves delightfully in my Imaginations, and 'tis necessary that even solid Truth should have its agreeableness. Well, said she, since your Folly is so pleasing to you, give me a share of it; I will believe whatever you please concerning the Stars, if I find it pleasant. * * *

[Click on image to enlarge] I shou'd think it very strange, that the Earth shou'd be inhabited as it is; and the other Planets shou'd be so entirely desolate and deserted: For you must not think, that we see all the living Creatures that inhabit the Earth. For there are as many several species and kinds of Animals invisible as there are visible. We see distinctly from the Elephant to the Mite; there our sight is bounded, and there are infinite numbers of living Creatures lesser than a Mite, to whom, a Mite is as big in proportion, as an Elephant is to it. The late invention of Glasses call'd Microscopes, have discover'd thousands of small living Creatures, in certain Liquors, which we cou'd never have imagin'd to have been there. And it may be the different tastes of these Liquors, proceed from these little Animals, who bite, and sting our Tongues and Palates. If you mix certain ingredients in these Liquors, (as Pepper in Water,) and expose 'em to the heat of the Sun, or let 'em putrefie, you shall see other new species or living Creatures. Several Bodies, which appear to be solid, are nothing else but Collections or little heaps of these imperceptible Animals; who find there as much room, as is requisite for them to move in. The leaf of a Tree, is a little World inhabited, by such invisible little Worms: To them this leaf seems of a vast Extent, they find Hills and Valleys upon it: And there is no more Communication between the living Creatures on the one side, and those on the other, than between us and the Antipodes. And I think there is more reason, to believe a Planet (which is so vast a Body) to be inhabited. There has been found in several sorts of very hard Stones, infinite multitudes of little Worms, lodg'd all over them in insensible varieties; and who are nourish'd upon the Substance of these Stones which they eat. Consider the vast Numbers of these little Animals, and how long a tract of Years they have liv'd upon a grain of Sand. And by this Argument, tho my Moon were nothing but a confus'd heap of Marble Rocks, I wou'd rather make it be devour'd and consum'd by its Inhabitants, than to place none at all in it.

To conclude, every thing lives, and every thing is animated; that is to say, if you comprehend the Animals, that are generally known; the living Creatures lately discover'd, and those that will be discover'd herafter, you will find that the Earth is very well Peopl'd; and that Nature has been so liberal in bestowing them, that she has not been at the pains to discover half of 'em. After this, can you believe, that Nature, who has been fruitful to Excess as to the Earth, is barren to all the rest of the Planets? My reason is convinc'd, said the Marquiese, but my Fancy is confounded with the infinite Number of living Creatures, that are in the Planets; and my thoughts are strangely embarass'd with the variety that one must of Necessity imagine to be amongst 'em; because I know Nature does not love Repetitions; and therefore they must all be different. But how is it possible for one to represent all these to our Fancy? Our Imaginations can never comprehend this variety, said I, let us be satisfied with our Eyes, or we may easily conceive by a universal view, Nature has form'd variety in the several Worlds. All the Faces of Mankind are in general near the same Form. Yet the two great Nations of our Globe, the Europeans and Africans, seem to have been made after different Models. Nay, there is a certain resemblance and Air of the Countenance peculiar to every Family or Race of Men. Yet it is wonderful to observe how many Millions of Times, Nature has varied so simple a thing as the Face of a Man. We, the Inhabitants of the Earth, are but one little Family of the Universe, we resemble one another. The Inhabitants of another Planet, are another Family, whose Faces have another Air peculiar to themselves; by all appearance, the difference increases with the distance, for cou'd one see an Inhabitant of the Earth, and one of the Moon together, he wou'd perceive less difference between them, than between an Inhabitant of the Earth, and an Inhabitant of Saturn. Here (for Example) we have the use of the Tongue and Voice, and in another Planet, it may be, they only speak by Signs. In another the Inhabitant speaks not at all. Here our Reason is form'd and made perfect by Experience. In another Place, Experience adds little or nothing to Reason. Further off, the old know no more than the young. Here we trouble our selves more to know what's to come, than to know what's past. In another Planet, they neither afflict themselves with the one nor the other; and 'tis likely they are not the less happy for that. Some say we want a sixth Sense by which we shou'd know a great many things we are now ignorant of. It may be the Inhabitants of some other Planet have this advantage; but want some of those other five we enjoy; it may be also that there are a great many more natural Senses in other Worlds; but we are satisfi'd with the five that are fal'n to our Share, because we know no better. Our Knowledge is bounded to certain limits, which the Wit of Man cou'd never yet exceed. There is a certain point where our Ingenuity is at a stand; that which is beyond it is for some other World, where it may be some things, that are familiar to us, are altogether unknown. Our Globe enjoys the Pleasure of Love; but is destroyed in several places by the fury of War. Another Planet enjoys constant Peace, without the delights of Love, which must render their Lives very irksom. In fine, Nature has done to the several Worlds in great, as she has done to us Mortals in little; by making some happy, others miserable. Yet she has never forgot her admirable Art in varying all things, tho she has made some equal in some respects, by compensating the want of any one thing, with another of equal value.

Are you satisfi'd, said I, Madam, very gravely; have not I told you Chimeras in abundance? Truly, I find not so much difficulty to comprehend these differences of Worlds; my Imagination is working upon the Model you have given me. And I am representing to my own Mind odd Characters and Customs for these Inhabitants of the other Planets. Nay more, I am forming extravagant shapes and figures for 'em: I can describe 'em to you; for I fansie I see 'em here. I leave these shapes, said I, Madam, to entertain you in Dreams this Night.


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