Passages from the Life of a Philosopher/Chapter XXXI

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Passages from the Life of a Philosopher  (1864) 
by Charles Babbage


a vision.

How, when, and where this vision occurred it is unnecessary for me at present to state. It did not arise under the action of the laughing-gas or of chloroform, but by some much more real and immediate spiritual action. I had no perception of body or of matter, yet I felt that I was in the presence of a reasoning being of a different order from man. Language was not the means of our communication; yet it became necessary, in order to be intelligible, when I wrote down the facts immediately after that singular event?—but language itself is quite insufficient to give an adequate idea of its immense apparent duration.

The first difficulty I felt in this communion with an unearthly Spirit was the notion of space. Our views of it differed widely. On many points, as, for instance, measure, we apprehended each other perfectly, for each referred to the height of an individual of his own race—of course about six feet. At last I discovered that my idea of space, which was founded upon vacuity, was exactly the reverse of that of the Spirit, which was based upon solidity. I will now, as far as I can, place before my reader the information I received.

The first desire I expressed to the Spirit was to learn, if possible, his view of the origin of all things. He stated that the records of his race, which he declared was the highest in creation, went back, with great certainty, for myriads of years before all other created beings: that previously to this, their history was somewhat obscure, but had recently been placed upon a much surer footing by some of their most prominent Spirits.

(a.) In the beginning all space was fluid—apparently one universal whitish liquid extended in all directions through what we should call space; so I thought at first that this might have some relation to the "milky way." Its temperature was considerable; and in about every thousand years a torrent of this fluid, of a still higher temperature, passed through space with a kind of gushing rush. It was peopled by myriads of happy spirits floating about in it.

After long ages of happiness a dispute arose between two Spirits as to the possibility of the existence of matter under any other form than that of a fluid. The Power which controlled their destiny, justly angry at their presumption, threw into the fluid a very small piece of what, as far as I could understand, was like organic matter.

(b.) The effect was astounding: all the fluid in contact with this intrusive piece of matter gradually lost its fluidity, and a new state of matter or of space arose which had been unknown in all past time. The change advanced slowly but certainly, on every side of the intruded matter. In its new form, as far as I could make out, space became elastic gelatinous matter. The two quarrelsome Spirits were the first to be surrounded in it. None in the immediate presence of this new kind of space could move away, and absorption went on rapidly imprisoning millions of beings.

A great controversy arose as to the state of those embedded in the jelly. Some supposed that they were miserably squeezed, and maintained that they deserved to be thoroughly wretched. Whilst others asserted, that being entirely relieved from movement, theirs must be a state of perfect blessedness, their whole faculties being absorbed in contemplation. In the midst of these discussions the process of jellification was advancing more and more rapidly, and in ten thousand years the whole of infinite fluidity throughout all space, with all its myriads of Beings embedded in it, was transformed into this new form of space. From the description conveyed to me by the Spirit, I should infer that the whole of what we call infinite space had now become more nearly like blancmange than any other sub-aërial substance.

(c.) After a state of repose of many hundred thousand years a new catastrophe occurred. Space became too large even for itself. It then suffered, for many hundred thousand years, enormous compression. During this long period all its embedded Spirits perished, and space itself, during six hundred thousand years, became one vast and solid desert, containing no living beings.

But the vast periods of the past were as nothing compared with the long series of cycles which now succeeded—each in itself comprising millions of years.

About this time recorded history began, and is believed, by the Spirit with whom I was in conference, to be as authentic as the nature of the circumstances admit.

One solitary survivor seems to have escaped the crash of systems and the condensation of space. He proceeded to cut himself into two parts, and to advise each part to follow out the same course, directing them to transmit the command of their first parent throughout all time. Alone, in the midst of infinite solidity, the newly-severed beings, setting themselves back to back, exerted force. Thus urged, matter itself gave way, and they occupied an elongated hollow space. Then again bisecting themselves, they further lengthened the path. After ten thousand years they began to exert their energies in the transverse directions of that path, and thus widened it. The race then began to form chambers, each for himself, into which he might retire for abstruse calculations, the nature of which seemed almost beyond the remotest reach of utility, although not beyond the power of the Analytical Engine. Thus vast cities, as it were, became formed, penetrating in every direction through solid space.

(d.) After millions of years of industry quietness and calculations, a most extraordinary catastrophe occurred. It was with the greatest difficulty that I could discover its nature, or how to explain it in ordinary language. The nearest approach I can make towards its explanation is this:—It seemed, from what my spiritual informant communicated, that the whole universe was lifted up bodily, and then borne rapidly back with a great shock, thus disarranging everything, and destroying millions of their race.

But the most incomprehensible part of this historic narration was, that on the survivors recovering their senses, they found that everything which had formerly been on their right hand was now on their left. They also observed, to their still greater dismay, that every abode in the universe was turned topsy-turvy, so that the surviving philosophers, who had retired to their attics to study, suddenly found themselves in their cellars.

I have conveyed, as carefully as the nature of the subject admits, the impressions this relation made upon me, sometimes assisted in my slow apprehensions by another unembodied Spirit, whom, to distinguish from the relator, I shall call Mathesis.

Whenever a man can get hold of numbers, they are invaluable: if correct, they assist in informing his own mind, but they are still more useful in deluding the minds of others. Numbers are the masters of the weak, but the slaves of the strong. I therefore earnestly pressed for more exact information as to the possible number of years; but it appeared beyond the Spirit's power to estimate it, even within a few millions. He mentioned incidentally that the last vast period he had just described was merely one of many others of similar extent: also, that though these periods were not actually equal, the difference, which even in extreme cases only reached a hundred thousand years, was not worth considering.

To gratify my longing desire for information on this most important subject, the Spirit proceeded to inform me that their histories recorded a large number of these successive catastrophes, and that they were succeeded by a new and more terrible one, which he was proceeding to explain, when I interrupted him by asking for an approximate estimate of their number. Aware of my anxious desire for numerical accuracy, he said he could, in this one instance, gratify it fully. "If there is," said my informant, "any one point better established than all others, it is that there had occurred exactly one hundred and twenty-one of these avatars of destruction."

I now felt as if I had discovered one solitary fixed point in the vast chaos of time. My guide described to me that, after the termination of this system of one hundred and twenty-one cycles, a new and more terrific system of events followed each other.

First, however, he said he must mention an interregnum, irregular in its progress, but still of vast duration; in fact, some of his race had been able to prove that it occupied at least three times as long as any one of those just described.

(e.) It commenced by a motion very like that to which space itself had been submitted at the end of each avatar, finishing with a smash, and followed by a period of repose of about ten thousand years. It however differed from those avatars inasmuch as there was no inversion of the position of cellar and attic.

(f.) A new form of shaking of universal solid space now arose, much more frequent but less destructive than the former. It occurred about once in two years, and was repeated many hundred thousand times.

(g.) Again a period exactly similar to that recorded in (e) occurred.

(h.) This was followed by a long series of movements of all solidity, approaching, as far as I could understand it, to an oscillating or wave motion. This continued without intermission during exactly three of those cycles whose precise number had been preserved.

(i.) During the whole of this period there was a great destruction of the race. A universal sickness arose and continued more or less, so that multitudes actually perished, and those who escaped could scarcely carry on the ordinary calculations necessary for their existence.

(j.) Another period followed, ending with a smash excessively like (e).

(k.) Then followed a period of shaking like that in (f).

(l.) Then another smash like (e).

(m.) Period of long repose.

After this came a long state of absolute rest.

Such was the dawn of the most terrible, as well as the most recent, of these vast changes in the universe which had been so well related by my ethereal guide.

(n.) The temperature of the universe had been uniform throughout many millions of years: it now began to change in different isolated place. Increased cold in some parts drove the inhabitants from their dwellings. This was followed by torrents of invisible air, bringing infection and death to millions of their race. Public opinion was roused, and their academies of science and of arts were urged to devise a remedy. An expedition was sent by their school of Science and of Geology to endeavour to trace the origin of this plague.

The Commission, after long investigation, reported that they had penetrated solid space in their usual way, putting each other back to back, and pressing the foremost forward. It also stated that one of them had invented a method of arrangement of the members in a kind of wedge form, which they found much more effective for their object. The result of this, however, was that the leader of the column got so many squeezes, that all their best Spirits declined a position for which coarser animals were better fitted. Consequently, most of their Presidents of scientific bodies were selected from what we should call the "Demi-monde" of science.

The first report of this Commission stated that, after penetrating space (by pushing) through many thousand miles, they had reached the cause of all the evil. They had ascertained that it arose from the fact they had discovered,—that space itself was discontinuous:—that they had reached a spot where there was a kind of chasm in it, into which some of them tumbled, and were with difficulty extricated:—in fact, they reported that it was only necessary to send proper persons to fill up this chasm in order to restore the universe to health.

Great rejoicings were made on the return of this Commission. Public meetings were held, speeches were made, papers were read, and medals were lavished. Those who had interest used their services on this committee to justify their promotion, each in his own different line. Those who had no interest as well as those who had, were anointed daily during twelve months with what I can but very imperfectly describe by calling it lip-salve. All this while they were fed at the public expense with royal food, which was highly coveted; but as far as I could make out, its taste must have been somewhat intermediate between rancid butter and flummery. Whatever this may have been, they relished it highly, and in truth it seems to have been well suited to their organs of digestion.

Time, however, went on; the pestilence increased. Strange reports arose: first, that space itself was decaying; then, that there existed somewhere in decayed space an immense dragon whose breath produced the pestilence, and who swallowed up thousands of Spirits at each mouthful.

Another Commission was sent, with instructions to fill up the hole in space. This was supposed to be a great step in advance. Having penetrated a very short distance beyond the celebrated chasm, they found another just like it, and on the same level. They found the first chasm slightly curved, which had indeed been remarked by an unpretending member of the former Commission: but so simple a remark was not thought worth reporting. The second chasm also was found slightly curved, but its curvature was in an opposite direction, presenting rudely the appearance of two parentheses, thus (). Upon this discovery the Commission were inclined to return and report that a series of chasms occurred in advance of the first, and that it would be useless—indeed, that it would be highly dangerous—to open more chasms. One of the most modest of the Commissioners, who had been snubbed on the former occasion, suggested, however, that these slightly-curved chasms might possibly be portions of some vast circular crack: an idea which was ridiculed as a wild hypothesis by the chairman, quizzed by the secretary, and laughed at by all the rest. Fortunately they were persuaded to excavate a few yards more on the second vertical chasm or crack, when it became probable that the single dissentient was right. It soon became certain, and before half the circle had been uncovered, each member of the commission thought he had himself been the first to discover its circular shape.

But the chairman was a person of large experience. He quietly left the Commissioners to fight amongst themselves about the discovery of the circle, and if they chose, even about its quadrature. On his return, however, he reported that from some very extensive calculations of his own he had anticipated an elliptic cavity; that he had directed the attention of the Commissioners to the subject; and that they had succeeded in verifying his prediction. He also stated that the same theory led him to the knowledge of the fact, that in certain cases the ellipse might approach very nearly to a circle, although it could never actually reach it, whilst on the other hand it might become so flat as to approach a straight line—an approximation to which nobody ever suggested that the chairman himself could have attained. The chairman then, with singular modesty, alluding in his report to one of his colleagues possessing high rank, great influence and a very moderate knowledge of science, remarked that it as fortunate for him (the chairman) that that distinguished member had been so fully occupied with much more valuable investigations, otherwise he would certainly have anticipated the important discovery it had fallen to his own lot to make.

In the meantime the Commissioners, who had each wished to appropriate to himself the discovery of the circle, now thought that this usurpation of it by their chairman was most unjust towards the unpretending member who had really made it. They therefore advised him to claim his own discovery, and promised to back him in asserting it.

But their chairman really was a clever fellow,[1] and deep as Silurian rocks. Aware of the importance of the discovery thus appropriated, he had already visited the modest Commissioner—had overwhelmed him with compliments, and had also prevailed upon that other influential Commissioner whom he had so well buttered in his Report, to give him a small piece of preferment, which had been accepted by his victim:—thus putting a padlock upon his lips, which his brother Commissioners were unable either to unlock or to pick.

After the Report was presented, more speeches were made—more medals given, but the plague continued, and their universe was depopulated.

A third Commission was afterwards sent, who reported that they found at the spot previously reached, on either side, two vast circles, the diameter of each of which was one hundred times the height of an ordinary individual; that the material occupying space within the circle differed slightly from that without it; and that it appeared as if a vast cylinder of space had been pushed through without disturbing the matter external to it. They also reported that the former Commissioners had never approached the origin of the mischief, but had simply worked their way, at right angles, to a line which might terminate in it at the distance of a thousand miles, more or less, either on the right or on the left hand of the point they had reached.

At this moment a sound like the roll of distant thunder recalled me to this lower world, and interrupted my interesting communion with the world of Spirits. That noise arose from the chimes of the cathedral clock. Spending a few days at Salisbury, I had wandered into the cathedral, and being much fatigued, had selected the luxurious pew of the Dean as a place of temporary rest. Reposing on elastic cushions, with my head resting on an eider-down pillow, the vision I have related had taken place.

On removing the pillow I observed a small piece of matter beneath it. This, upon examination, turned out to be a morsel of decayed Gloucester cheese. The whole vision was now very clearly explained. The verger had evidently retired to the most commodious pew to eat his dinner, and had inadvertently left the small bit of cheese upon the very spot I had selected for my temporary repose. It was clear that my Spirit had been put, en rapport, with the soul of a mite, one of the most cultivated of his race.

If the reader will glance over the following brief explanation, he will be fully convinced that my solution of this vision is the true one.

Parallel Passages in the Creation of the Universe and in the Birth and Education of a Gloucester Cheese.


a. Milk gushing into the milk-pail at the rate of twenty gushes per minute. Alternations of greater and less heat.

b. Rennet being thrown in, the milk curdles.

c. Curds compressed into cheese.
d. Cheese turned over daily during 121 days.
A few minutes' difference in the time of the dairy-man's attendance to perform this operation made the days slightly unequal.

e. Cheese lifted up and pitched into a cart.

f. Cheese jolted in cart during half a day on its way to to be shipped at Gloucester.

g. Cheese pitched from cart into ship.

h. Ship sails with the cheese for Southampton.

i. The motion of the waves makes the mites sea-sick for three days. Multitudes die.

j. Cheese taken from ship and pitched into a cart; as in the period e.

k. Cheese conveyed in cart to cheesemonger at Salisbury—the mites dreadfully jolted.

l. Cheese pitched into cheesemonger's shop, as in e.

m. Long period of repose of the cheese on the cheese-monger's shelf.

n. A cylindrical cavity made and piece taken out for a customer to taste. Portion of cylinder replaced.

Air being let in, a part of the cheese becomes rotten, in which large worms are produced, giving rise to the story of the dragon.

In order to discover the month in which the cheese was made, I remarked that, since it was turned over on its shelf in the cheese-room exactly 121 times, it must have been first placed there in some month which, together with the three succeeding months, had a number of days exactly equal to 121.

I then computed the following Table:—

Table of the number of Days contained in each four months, commencing on the first day of each month and ending on the last day of the fourth following month.

Number of Days.
1 January to 30 April 120
1 February " 31 May 120
1 March " 30 June 122
1 April " 31 July 122
1 May " 31 August 123
1 June " 30 September 122
1 July " 31 October 123
1 August " 30 November 122
1 September " 31 December 122
1 October " 31 January 123
1 November " 28 February 120
1 December " 31 March 121

Now, from the preceding Table it appears that there is only one month in the year fulfilling this condition, namely, the month of March. It follows, therefore, that the cheese must have been made four months before, that is, in the month of December.

Shortly after this vision I received a visit from that great geologist, the erudite Professor Ponderdunder,[2] a member of all existing Academies, and Secretary of the most celebrated How-and-wi Academy for the Reconstruction of Primeval Time. I was anxious to have the opinion of this learned person upon my recent experience: but he was evidently envious of my vision, which he treated disrespectfully. Possessed of an intellect which was anything but precocious, I had with much labour at last made him apprehend the arithmetic by which I had discovered the exact month of December in the date of the great series of 121 cataclysms, and I felt much mortified that he did not appreciate my ingenuity. All of a sudden he seemed intuitively to perceive the use that might be made of this vision. He then asked me with great earnestness whether I had communicated this new method of reasoning to any other person. On my answering in the negative, he entreated me not to say a word about it. He was especially anxious that Gardner Wilkinson, Layard, and Rawlinson should not get hold of it, lest they might anticipate the discovery which it would enable him to complete. He assured me that he could, by visiting Nineveh, and taking the Pyramids and Jericho on his road, with the aid of my formula, restore the true chronology from the creation.

Having given him this promise, he left me, and immediately telegraphed to a very influential friend, the Vice-President who managed the How-and-wi Academy, suggesting that not a moment should be lost in authorizing him to set out on this expedition, which although painfully laborious to himself personally and not without peril, he was willing to undertake for the glory of the Academy, and from the religious conviction that it would enable him to refute the frightful heresy of Bishop Colenso. Within twenty-four hours the faithful telegraph brought him back the order to start and the credit necessary for his equipment. He soon completed the latter, and was en route within the time I have mentioned.

It is with deep regret I have now to state, that just ten days after the active Secretary had started on his pious mission, I discovered that my reasoning about the month of December with all its consequences was completely vitiated by not having taken into consideration the existence of leap years, in which case the magic number 121 occurs in no less than four cases; so that nothing at all is decided by it.

I can only add my hope that, if any of my readers should become acquainted with the whereabouts of the learned Ponderdunder, he would kindly communicate by electric telegraph this painful intelligence to that energetic traveller.

I have subsequently been informed that Professor Ponderdunder's honorarium is only £800 a-year, and the payment of all travelling expenses. The former is doubled upon dangerous travel. I was told that he also enjoys a snug sinecure of considerable value recently instituted in his own country; being at the head of the department for the promotion of "Small Science and Low Art." The family of the Ponderdunders possess the peculiar gift of manipulating learned bodies. The Flowery—Rhetorical, and the Zoo-Ethnological Societies barely escaped perdition under their costly autocracy. I regret also to add, (but truth forbids me to conceal the interesting fact) that Ponderdunder is not a member of all existing academies as his visiting card indicated.

On searching the list of the members of the Roman Academy "Dei Lynxcii," I find that he is not a Lynx. This, the oldest of European academies, originally existed in the time of Galileo. About a quarter of a century ago I had the honour of receiving its diploma.

  1. A clever fellow may occasionally snatch our applause; but a clever man can alone command our respect.
  2. Author of the celebrated Treatise "On the Entity of Space," the basis of all sound metaphysical reasoning.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.