September 18, 2008

From the Earth to the Moon (1865)
Jules Verne (Scholastic, 1969)
188 p.  First reading.

From the Earth to the Moon belongs to Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaire series of books, to which his famous stories Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days also belong.

It is an unexpectedly light-hearted and humorous account of a group of American cannon-makers who, disappointed with the sudden cessation of the Civil War, cast about for a worthy enterprise by which to perpetuate their livelihood.  The President of the Baltimore Gun Club hits upon a grand scheme: they will construct an enormous cannon to fire a projectile to the moon!  The breathtaking audacity of the idea fires the imagination of the world, and one optimistic Frenchman even volunteers to ride inside the shot.  They set to work.

I am largely ignorant of the history of science fiction, but I imagine that this story must be one of the earliest examples of the genre.  Unlike some other science fiction novels I have read (there aren’t many), which gloss over whatever science they may contain — sometimes precious little — in order to get to the story, Verne’s story is mostly just a frame on which to hang a series of potted lessons on various scientific topics.  The attentive reader will come away instructed in the niceties of lunar orbits, lunar phases, cosmological history, atmospheric composition, gravitation, structural integrity, escape velocity, explosives, and other judiciously chosen subjects.  They are all written with wit and clarity — though not always, alas, with correctness.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, when read from this distance, is precisely this difference between what Verne knew, or thought he knew, about the world, and what we know, or think we know, about it.  He was writing at a time when electromagnetic theory was still taking shape (Maxwell’s equations were not published until the 1880s) and he leaves that subject largely untouched — imagine trying to send someone to the moon without using any electronics!  He is on solid ground with trajectories and orbits and anything based on Newtonian mechanics, but he overlooks the fact that air resistance would melt his moon-shot before it got very far, and he defends the idea that the moon is habitable, and perhaps inhabited.  Was this respectable scientific speculation at the time?  I don’t know.

At times this interplay between truth and error becomes intricate, as in Verne’s description [appended below] of the evolution of the universe from its “chaotic epoch” to the present.  There are few points at which his description survives unchanged, yet the general picture be paints is close to our current view of the matter — indeed, surprisingly close!  I had thought such theories of cosmic evolution the special possession of post-Big Bang theories of the universe, but clearly I was wrong.  It demonstrates that I should know more than I do about the history of cosmology.

[Cosmology, c.1865]
An observer endued with an infinite range of vision, and placed in that unknown center around which the entire world revolves, might have beheld myriads of atoms filling all space during the chaotic epoch of the universe. Little by little, as ages went on, a change took place; a general law of attraction manifested itself, to which the hitherto errant atoms became obedient: these atoms combined together chemically according to their affinities, formed themselves into molecules, and composed those nebulous masses with which the depths of the heavens are strewed. These masses became immediately endued with a rotary motion around their own central point. This center, formed of indefinite molecules, began to revolve around its own axis during its gradual condensation; then, following the immutable laws of mechanics, in proportion as its bulk diminished by condensation, its rotary motion became accelerated, and these two effects continuing, the result was the formation of one principal star, the center of the nebulous mass.

By attentively watching, the observer would then have perceived the other molecules of the mass, following the example of this central star, become likewise condensed by gradually accelerated rotation, and gravitating round it in the shape of innumerable stars. Thus was formed the Nebulae, of which astronomers have reckoned up nearly 5,000.

Among these 5,000 nebulae there is one which has received the name of the Milky Way, and which contains eighteen millions of stars, each of which has become the center of a solar world.

If the observer had then specially directed his attention to one of the more humble and less brilliant of these stellar bodies, a star of the fourth class, that which is arrogantly called the Sun, all the phenomena to which the formation of the Universe is to be ascribed would have been successively fulfilled before his eyes. In fact, he would have perceived this sun, as yet in the gaseous state, and composed of moving molecules, revolving round its axis in order to accomplish its work of concentration. This motion, faithful to the laws of mechanics, would have been accelerated with the diminution of its volume; and a moment would have arrived when the centrifugal force would have overpowered the centripetal, which causes the molecules all to tend toward the center.

Another phenomenon would now have passed before the observer’s eye, and the molecules situated on the plane of the equator, escaping like a stone from a sling of which the cord had suddenly snapped, would have formed around the sun sundry concentric rings resembling that of Saturn. In their turn, again, these rings of cosmical matter, excited by a rotary motion about the central mass, would have been broken up and decomposed into secondary nebulosities, that is to say, into planets. Similarly he would have observed these planets throw off one or more rings each, which became the origin of the secondary bodies which we call satellites.

Thus, then, advancing from atom to molecule, from molecule to nebulous mass, from that to principal star, from star to sun, from sun to planet, and hence to satellite, we have the whole series of transformations undergone by the heavenly bodies during the first days of the world.

2 Responses to “Selenomania”

  1. […] R­­e­­a­d t­­he­­ r­­e­­st­­ he­­r­­e­­: S­el­­en­o­­m­an­i­a […]

  2. […] haphazard, limited by what I happen to have sitting on my shelves. I began with Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, and now I turn to one of the early stories of H.G. Wells.  They could hardly be more different.  […]

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