Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 10.djvu/739

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719
THE FIRST "POPULAR SCIENTIFIC TREATISE."

this idea was once brand-new. At the present time, when the most recondite investigation is summarized and explained for the unscientific, so that what is capable of translation into common speech is discussed at tea-tables within a week after presentation, it is not easy to go back in imagination to a day when the student of Nature worked only for, and was judged only by, a narrow circle of his own, and most gentlemen and gentlewomen were not only completely ignorant of scientific thought and method, but would have felt in danger of acquiring pedantry in learning them. Such, however, was the state of things two hundred years ago in the then most cultivated society of Europe; and it was to Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle that first presented itself the audaciously novel conception of writing a book which should render some of the results of science into a language comprehensible by the most fashionably ignorant, and in a style which should make science itself recognized as a permissible topic of discussion in the salons.

His happy thought was executed with a cleverness akin to genius: the book went into all languages, and is said to have been reprinted a hundred times during the last century. "Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds" was its title; and though it is by no means rare, and indeed remains a classic in its kind, it is probably nowadays known only by name to the majority of English readers. Yet, in its way, nothing better has been done since, or rather its way is one which has had no entirely successful imitator among all its numerous progeny. It will be interesting, then, to look at this original in a path since so well trodden, and in doing so it may be premised that the book appeared in 1686, and was addressed to such a circle of readers as then only French society and the court of Louis XIV. could furnish. The age of Corneille, Molière, and Racine, La Bruyère, La Rochefoucauld, and St. Simon, Bossuet, Massillon, and Bourdaloue (and it might be added of Fontenelle himself), was certainly not devoid of literary culture, and yet that very culture had so completely excluded science that we shall presently see the marchioness, who is presented to us as a type of accomplished elegance, expressing complete astonishment at hearing that the earth turns round, and the most naïve wonder at the idea that her park and castle, and she herself, are actually turning too!

The "Conversations" are introduced with a description of a moonlight night in the park, where the author is walking with the marchioness, to whom he is paying his court, with the accompaniment of perpetual and somewhat insipid compliment, which seems to have been a part of the conversational dress of the time, and to have belonged to the fashion of the period as much as its lace-covered waistcoats.

The talk is first of the beauty of the night, and moves on in an easy and natural tone, till the author casually speaks of the stars they are contemplating as "these worlds." The lady asks for an explana-