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- The discoveries
made possible by the telescope and microscope
were disturbing as well as exhilarating.
Early responses to what John Donne called
the "new philosophy" included deep
discomfort and attempts by the Church to
suppress scientific inquiry; in 1633, Galileo
was forced by the Inquisition to recant his "false
opinion" that "the earth is not
the center of the world and moves."
- Why would the discoveries made with the telescope have appeared threatening
to Christian belief? How does John Donne respond to the "new philosophy" in
his Anatomy of the World (NAEL 8, 1.1289)?
- In Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (NAEL 8, 1.1022), a man asks a devil
for the truth about "divine astrology," while in Book 8 of
Lost (NAEL 8, 1.1960–73) a man poses similar questions to the angel Raphael. Compare
these two episodes. What does each suggest about the proper scope and
limits of human knowledge?
the Church's initial response was largely
hostile, during the next few centuries the "new
philosophy" and its plurality of worlds
became acceptable Christian doctrine. Most
of the writers and artists in this section
of the Norton Topics Online Web site view
the plurality of worlds as evidence for faith,
not as antagonistic to it.
- How do these writers and artists reconcile scientific knowledge with
Christian faith? Why do Pascal and Sterne,
for instance, find their religious beliefs confirmed rather than refuted
by the new scientific discoveries?
- What religious implications do you find in the pictures by Thomas
Wright and Joseph
- Have your own beliefs been at all affected by looking through microscopes
and telescopes? What ideas or lessons have been suggested by what you
have seen there?
world" is an ambiguous term, which can
stand at once for the earth or universe as
a whole and for a particular social class,
the privileged and fashionable people who
set the tone of society. Many of the writers
who popularized the notion of a plurality
of worlds seem to be thinking about society
as well as science.
- What is the relation between the cosmic or microscopic worlds discovered
by the new science and the elite social class that takes pleasure in
them, according to Margaret Cavendish, Stephen
Duck, and The Female Spectator?
- The illustration of Fontenelle's Conversations
on the Plurality of Worlds graphically expresses the collision
of cosmic and social "worlds." Why would Fontanelle use
a flirtation with an aristocrat to popularize the new discoveries?
- In the last analysis, is the plurality of worlds a democratic doctrine,
or a doctrine that suggests that certain people and classes are superior
to others? What arguments can be made on both sides?
Huygens draws conclusions about the
probable nature of extraterrestrial societies
based on comparison with "the barbarous
people of America."
- What similarities can you see between the discovery and conceptualization
of "other worlds" in space and the "New World" in
the western hemisphere? Compare the texts in this Norton Topics Online
topic with some of those devoted to the
world explored by Europeans in the sixteenth century.
- Make a comparison between Huygens's and Fontenelle's ways
of reasoning about other worlds and Michel de Montaigne's reflections
on the society of cannibals.
- In his letter
to the Royal Society (NAEL 8, 1.2156), Newton's
report of his methods and deductions about
the nature of light is shot through with
expressions of pleasure and wonder.
- What aspects of Newton's findings elicit the most pleasure and
excitement, and why? Are there aspects of his discoveries which he or
a reader might find disturbing or frightening?
- What consequences might Newton's discovery that objects have no
colors in themselves "but put on all colors indifferently with which
they are enlightened" have for thinking about society and religion?
- When Sir
Thomas Browne wrote that "there is all
Africa and her prodigies in us" (NAEL
8, 1.1587), he was not thinking of what could
be seen through a microscope. To what extent
did the new scientific methods of inquiry
make Browne's approach in Religio
Medici and Hydriotaphia obsolete?
Do you think anything of value was lost in
this transition? What echoes of Browne's
concerns and his way of reasoning do you
find in the more "scientific" approach
of the eighteenth century?
- In the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries, there was no clear
line between scientific speculation and what
we now call "science fiction." Johann
Kepler and John Wilkins wrote about possible
life on the moon, while Margaret Cavendish
imagined infinite inhabited worlds in The
Blazing World. Today, works that go by
the name of "science fiction" are
rarely taken seriously either as science
or as literature; but a number of twentieth-century
writers in other genres have reflected on
science and its impact on our view of the
- What insight do contemporary science fiction books and films offer
into modern sciences such as astronomy and biology? What do they suggest
about our view of the role of science in society?
- What role does scientific learning play in poems such Hugh MacDiarmid's We
Must Look at the Harebell (NAEL 8, 2.2467), Fleur Adcock's The
Ex-Queen Among the Astronomers, and Craig Raine's A
Martian Sends a Postcard Home?
- Why would
English women of the Restoration and eighteenth
century have been interested in exploring
other worlds? Why and to what extent would
men have regarded this as a suitable female
pursuit? How would Margaret
Cavendish and the male Philo-Naturae have
regarded each other's writings and views
about the role of women in science? How,
given the views expressed in The Aims
of the Spectator (NAEL 8, 1.2473), would
Addison respond to both?
- When writers
like Fontenelle and Huygens speculate
on the inhabitants of other worlds, they
consider how extraterrestrials may differ
from human beings, as well as ways in which
they are likely to be similar. Read their
comments closely, noting as well aspects
of human society which they simply do not
bring up. What do their speculations and
their silences suggest about their views
of nature and society?
essay on "the
Authors of the new Philosophy" emphasizes
the pleasure and wonder aroused by microscopic
and astronomical discoveries, while his essay
on the "Scale of Being" (NAEL 8, 1.2490)
and his ode on
the glory of creation make these discoveries
the basis of religious and moral contemplation.
What links, and what tensions, if any, do
you perceive between the pleasure derived
from the new science and its moral value?
You may consider this question in relation
- Addison's writings.
- Pope's Essay on Man (NAEL 8, 1.2540).
- The poems of Thomas Traherne (NAEL 8, 1.1769).
- What does
Johnson's tale of the deluded Egyptian
astronomer in chapters 40–47 of Rasselas (NAEL
8, 1.2730) suggest about the potential pitfalls
of the new learning? Is the scientific method
a corrective to the astronomer's delusions,
or their cause?
- Read about
the lives and discoveries of two pioneers
of the microscope, Robert
Hooke and Antony
van Leeuwenhoek, on the Web. What significance
do you find in the substances they chose
to examine and how they described them? What
metaphors and similes drawn from this world
do they employ to describe the world under
- View the
images of distant stars and cataclysmic events
taken in recent years by The
Hubble Telescope. How do you respond to
these images, with and without reference to
the accompanying explanations? How might eighteenth-century
stargazers have interpreted and responded
to these pictures?