Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 10.djvu/741

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THE FIRST "POPULAR SCIENTIFIC TREATISE."

in his time) "says, 'Phaethon is carried up by a hidden principle;' another, 'Phaethon is composed of certain numbers which make him rise;' another, 'Phaethon has a certain attraction toward the top of the theatre;' and a hundred such vagaries, which I should have supposed would have cost antiquity all its credit. Finally, Descartes" (an Englishman would have said Bacon), "and some other moderns, have said, 'Phaethon rises because he is drawn up by cords, and because a heavier weight descends.' So now we have come to believe that, if a body move, it is because it is pushed or pulled, and one who could see Nature as it is would simply be seeing what is behind the scenes at the opera."

After this, Fontenelle goes on to sketch the history of his science, and thence to give an account of the Ptolemaic and other systems, which preceded the Copernican. Here, again, a happy image reminds us of a danger all system-makers share, as common partners in a weakness which is as universal as humanity:

"Before I explain the first of these systems, I beg you to remember that—we all of us—are like a certain madman at Athens you may have heard of, who took it into his head that all the ships which came into the harbor belonged to him. Our common failing is to believe all Nature created for our own use, and when you ask our philosophers what end is served by that host of stars, they will calmly tell you, It is there for us to look at.' In this way they could not fail to suppose that the earth was fixed in the centre of the universe, and that all the heavenly bodies were set to revolve about her, and give her light; the same propensity which leads one to desire the most honorable seat at a ceremony makes the philosopher in his system put himself at the centre of the universe if he can."

It will be seen, as Sainte-Beuve remarks, that Fontenelle possesses the art of scientific insinuation in the highest-degree; in addressing his marchioness, he is here appealing to the intelligence of every ignorant person who, rather than resemble the Athenian madman, is cajoled into truth, and disposed in advance to reject Ptolemy's system, in favor of the Copernican.

The account of the Copernican system involves the (to the marchioness) entirely novel idea of the earth's rotation. This is presented to us in a lively picture of the scene which would be offered to a spectator suspended above the surface as the speaker imagines himself to be: "'Passing under my eyes I see all sorts of faces, white, black, and brown. First come hats, and then turbans, and then shaven crowns; now towns with church-spires, now cities with slender, crescent-tipped minarets, now porcelain towers, and then again wide oceans and dreadful deserts.' 'What,' she cries, 'then in the place where we are—I don't mean this park, but this very place in the air—there are people continually passing by, who come where we are now, and at the end of twenty-four hours we get back again our-