13 May 2011

Fontenelle, the "first" popularizer of science

“First” is in quotes because who knows who really was the first person to translate a jargon-laced scientific theory into lay language? And I’m likely only talking Western Science, so I’m biased. My vote, however, goes to the French writer Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle. He may not have written for kids, but with his wit, sense of fun, and vivid imagination, he could have.

Fontenelle’s book Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (1686) was to the 17th century, what Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was to the 20th century — every one who could read had a copy. (Whether they read it — who has actually read A Brief History of Time cover-to-cover? — is another story.)

A slight 100 pages, Conversations takes place over six nights. A philosopher (meaning scientist) is staying at a chateau in the country, where he meets a Marquise. She is young, beautiful, and intelligent. Each night they meet to talk about the natural world. The philosopher opens the world to her eyes, and being curious and open-minded, she absorbs the most daring ideas of science to date. Every science journalist/writer/kids' science writer should read it. In his introduction, Fontenelle was upfront that the book was meant to entertain as well as educate. And he knew his audience. One of his main characters was a woman. Wait. An intelligent woman. Fontenelle understood that the key to his success as a writer was to engage his readers, and women were the ones who organized the salons and invited the intelligentsia, like him, to converse with the educated class about science. Fontenelle seized on that bit of market information — how many other writers were placing smart, beautiful women in mainstream roles?

Fontenelle (1657-1757) lived and wrote during the French enlightenment. Read “Conversations” and you’ll discover a writer far ahead of even that enlightened time period. When would humans build a flying machine to visit the Moon? Are there aliens? Exoplanets? Does Earth go around the Sun? Without his writings, the general reading public would not have had the exposure they did to progressive scientific ideas of the time, i.e. a heliocentric view of the solar system. Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica was published a year after Fontenelle’s book, and guaranteed (though it was seminal) hardly anyone could read and understand the book. It was Fontenelle who popularized the idea that other worlds could exist, inhabited by beings we could hardly imagine.

Today, Fontenelle would be clarifying the ideas about the multiverse, wormholes, the Higgs-Boson particle, and lamenting the demise of SETI. No, wait, he would be writing about more than physics — evolutionary biology and anthropology would definitely be on his radar.

At the time that Fontenelle wrote, educated Europeans had learned a lot about non-Europeans and comparative religion was becoming an active field of scholarship. Travellers, missionaries and colonial administrators were coming back to Europe to write about their adventures, the people, the cultures, and the religions they encountered. In 1661, for example, the Dutch scholar Gadetrius Carolinas, produced a 50-volume work on the many “heathen” religions. Fontenelle avidly read these accounts. In fact, at the same time as Fontenelle’s Of the Origin of Fables (another great read — short and to the point) was published in 1724 (although it was probably written in the 1690s), Francois Joseph Lafitau, a Jesuit Missionary, published The Customs of the American Savage Compared to the Custom of Earliest Times: The Canadian Iroquois and Myths of the Ancient Mediterranean Region.

To Fontenelle, humans may be a diverse lot, in varying stages of civilization, and their physicality partly based on environmental pressures, but the mentality of early humans was not fundamentally or qualitatively different from modern humans: “Clothes may change, but that does not mean that the shape of bodies does. Manners or the lack of them, science or ignorance, more or less of a certain naiveté, these are only man’s externals, and they all change, but the heart never changes, and all of man is contained in the heart.” — Jude Isabella, science writer, Fontenelle Fan

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