Fontenelle was not an original contributor to science. As secretary of the renowned French Academy of Sciences, he was in contact with the leading European scientists of the day. Fontenelle had a special talent for distilling the essence of current scientific thought into a philosophical work that was witty, engaging, and convincing. He openly drew upon Cartesian pluralism yet carefully evaded religious censors and critics. Fontenelle was not always successful in winning over the theologians. Their criticisms, however, were less important in an age that looked to science, and not to religion, for guidance.

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Published in , the book is remarkable, not so much for its literary merits as for the ultimate function its publication served. Hitherto, all scientific knowledge had been written only for other scientists and usually in some classical language. The answer to that question represents the second reason the book is remarkable.

The ideas he was bandying about were bold, controversial, even forbidden. As they had been scarcely known to the average reader before he explained and disseminated them, these astonishing ideas suddenly became all the rage. These are the scrupulous people who think there is a danger in respect to religion in placing inhabitants elsewhere than on Earth.

I respect even the most excessive sensibilities people have on the matter of Religion, and I would have respected Religion to the point of wishing not to offend it in a public work, even if it were contrary to my own opinion. But what may be surprising to you is that Religion simply has nothing to do with this system, in which an infinity of worlds with inhabitants exist. The descendants of Adam have not spread to the moon, nor sent colonies there. Therefore the men in the moon are not sons of Adam.

Perhaps I could respond soundly enough if I undertook it, but certainly I have no need to respond. I put no men there at all: I put inhabitants there who are not like men in any way. Perhaps it was the way he structured the book which helped it avoid censor the book takes the form of a succession of casual evening conversations or perhaps it was the the intentionally abstract and theoretical tone of the ideas themselves.

In the first place, they were abstract beliefs, a matter of principle rather than speculation about the future. It did not occur to anyone that travel between solar systems might become possible. It was assumed that mortals from one solar system could never have knowledge of the others, except perhaps in an afterlife. Paula Findlen, of Stanford University describes this change from the norm in her essay Becoming a Scientist: Gender and Knowledge in 18th c.

His knowledge was no social liability that removed him from ordinary conversation, but the very reason that he held the attention of an aristocratic Marquise for several days and nights, as he educated her in the mysteries of the post-Copernican, cartesian universe.

Quite the opposite. So whether it was clever recognition of an untapped market, a sincere desire to educate women and give them a fictional role model in the sciences, or to goad the men who would surely read the book into a more careful consideration we can not know. The effect, however, was to achieve all three. According to others these same ideas heavily influenced what we now call the Baroque in Art and Theater.

These are no small accomplishments to be connected with for a man who was lampooned by Voltaire and to this day is considered only moderately noteworthy. Hope you enjoyed.

For a bit of related reading- A full Google book scan of Conversations….


A Plurality of Worlds






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