Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 10.djvu/743

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723
THE FIRST "POPULAR SCIENTIFIC TREATISE."

evening, are applied to elucidate the constitution of the milky-way, in which worlds are, it seems, so thick that the plausible suggestion is made that their birds may fly from one to the other!

The remainder of the work is chiefly occupied with a description of the heavenly bodies considered with reference to their possible habitants, and here Fontenelle is not likely to be found tripping, for as to the nature, ways, and modes of living, of the inhabitants of the other planets, he is quite as well informed as we are. We shall find here nearly all that can be said, in the simple absence of any knowledge whatever on the point in question, but we may be more reasonably interested in the happiness of some conjectures offered, where he incidentally speaks of the physical constitution of the bodies he is considering. He tells us, for instance, that the rings of Saturn are supposed to be composed of numberless little moons, close together, and moving in the same orbit; an explanation which appears to have been lost sight of till modern analysis showed that they could not be continuous solids, and modern observation that they could hardly be liquid or gaseous. We have passed over too readily, perhaps, the purely speculative portion of the work, which, if not very instructive, is certainly entertaining, and filled with felicitous illustrations, such as that (too long for quotation) of the citizen of Paris, who maintains that St.-Denis, whose houses he can just distinguish from the towers of Notre-Dame, is uninhabited, because he can see no inhabitants. Or, for still another instance of this art of "scientific insinuation" already referred to, take the passage where the marchioness, after declaring herself dissatisfied with extravagant speculations about the inhabitants of the planets, is told that something positive is, after all, really known about a race on one of them, and which appears from his description to be remarkable indeed. He gives a minute, and, as he asserts, a trustworthy, account of these extraordinary beings, who he would have us believe are most laborious and skillful, yet live by pillage; who have no sex, yet increase as a nation; who subsist in the happiest concord, yet periodically put to death a portion of their innocent fellow-citizens; and so on, until the lady, who finds the story more incredible than any of the preceding speculations, on learning what the race is, and on what planet they exist, is forced to admit that truth may be stranger than fiction, and that no extravagance of his fancies about the possible commonwealths of other worlds surpasses what she has just been entrapped into listening to about that of the bees on our own.

Fontenelle, with all his abundant ingenuity, has one radical defect as a literary artist, and perhaps some will be disposed to add, as a student of Nature. He appears to have no power of moving or being moved by anything like emotion, or of perceiving anything not comprehensible to an intellect divorced from sympathetic intuition. The gallantry which he introduces as an element in the dialogue, and