August 20, 2005

The Discovery of a World in the Moone

In 1638, thirty years before the publication of his magnum opus An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, and his ordination as Bishop of Chester, the twenty-four year-old John Wilkins wrote a brief, speculative volume entitled The Discovery of a World in the Moone, or, a Discourse Tending to Prove, that ’tis probable there may be another habitable World in that Planet. The book comprises ‘proofs’ of thirteen propositions, the first of which somewhat hesitantly contends that the strangenesse of this opinion is no sufficient reason why it should be rejected…. In it, Wilkins writes I must needs confesse, though I had often thought with my selfe that it was possible there might be a world in the Moone, yet it seemed such an uncouth opinion that I never durst discover it, for feare of being counted singular and ridiculous…

Detail from the title-page of Wilkins's 'Discovery of a World.'

He continues by stating that he had found many of his thoughts confirmed rather than confounded by his subsequent readings of such authors as Plutarch, Galileo and Kepler (or, as he styles the latter pair, Galilæus and Keplar). Even so, one never senses that Wilkins felt his theory was much more than well-informed speculation. Given the blustery religious crosswinds prevalent in his day, Wilkins treads carefully when claiming, in his second chapter that a plurality of worlds doth not contradict any principle of reason or faith. In a refutation therein of some Aristotelian tenets, he writes, in a phrase anticpating a famous line of Newton’s, But yet it were a shame for these later ages to rest our selves meerely upon the labours of our Fore-fathers, as if they had informed us of all things to be knowne, and when we are set upon their shoulders, not to see further then they themselves did.

Detail from the title-page of Wilkins's 'Discovery of a World.'

Some of Wilkins’s propositions have been proven true with time: That the Moone is a solid, compacted, opacous body; That the Moone hath not any light of her owne; That there are high Mountaines, deepe vallies, and spacious plaines in the body of the Moone. His explanation of the heliocentric solar system—an idea which he considers likely enough to be true—inspires his pithiest argument: Now if our earth were one of the Planets […] then why may not another of the Planets be an earth? In other respects, alas, his propositions are wide of the mark: That those spots and brighter parts […] in the Moone, doe shew the difference betwixt the Sea and Land in that other World; The spots represent the Sea, and the brighter parts the Land; That there is an Atmo-sphæra, or an orbe of grosse vaporous aire, immediately encompassing the body of the Moone. And, as his final proposition, Wilkins claims that ’tis probable there may be inhabitants in this other World, but of what kinde they are is uncertaine.

Detail of an illustration in Wilkins's 'Discovery of a World.'

Wilkins stops short of speculating on the nature of any conjectural ‘Selenites.’ The book closes with a poignant appeal to posterity:

So, perhaps, there may be some other meanes invented for a conveyance to the Moone, and though it may seeme a terrible and impossible thing ever to passe through the vaste spaces of the aire, yet no question there would be some men who durst venture this […] True indeed, I cannot conceive any possible meanes for the like discovery of this conjecture, since there can be no sailing to the Moone […] We have not now any Drake or Columbus to undertake this voyage, or any Dadalus to invent a conveyance through the aire.
Another illustration in Wilkins's 'Discovery of a World.'
However, I doubt not but that that time who is still the father of new truths, and hath revealed unto us many things of which our Ancestours were ignorant of, will also manifest to our posterity, that which wee now desire, but cannot know. […] Arts are not yet come to their Solstice, but the industry of future times assisted with the labours of their forefathers, may reach unto that height wee could not attaine to […] Keplar doubts not, but that as soone as the art of flying is found out, some of their Nation will make one of the first colonies that shall inhabit that other world.

My source for the quotes, and the images above is a reprint edition of The Discovery of a World in the Moone issued by G. Olms Verlag in 1981. Click on the images to see them enlarged, and in full. For a previous Giornale entry about Wilkins, click here.

Posted by misteraitch at August 20, 2005 12:46 PM

fascinating. seems wilkins beat out fontenelle's a conversation on the plurality of worlds by almost 50 years! though i'll have to assume the discovery of a world in the moone was not meant as a popular novel but as a speculative scientific text? meaning it was aimed at other "natural philosophers?"

another interesting intersection, sort of. edmond rostand's 1868 play cyrano de bergerac was set in the 1640's and had cyrano in one scene talking about his travels to the moon. the play's namesake, the real cyrano, wrote le voyage dans la lune in 1657 which is sometimes given the honor of being recognized as the first literary use of rockets (actually an apparatus festooned with firecrackers).

must have been a great time to be educated and in possession of an ample imagination... minus all the excommunication and burnings at the stake of course.

Posted by: jmorrison on August 20, 2005 06:39 PM

From what I read of Fontenelle’s book at the Nonist, I’d hazard that Wilkins’s book is an altogether sketchier, more tentative work, and one that is definitely a work of (natural) philosophy rather than an ‘edutainment.’

As regards lunar travel, a tale called The Man in the Moone by one Francis Godwin, also published (posthumously) in 1638, was apparently the first such in English to touch the subject. The success of this story encouraged Wilkins ‘to set down his own thoughts on such a possibility in the third edition of The Discovery (not included in my copy). Wilkins saw no reason why men should not one day invent a means of transport—a “flying chariot,” as he called it—which could reach the Moon.’ (source here). See also this transcript of a talk evocatively entitled The Jacobean Space Programme.

That’s interesting about Cyrano: according to this, he re-used the name of Godwin’s astronaut, ‘Domingo Gonsales.’

Posted by: misteraitch on August 20, 2005 07:30 PM
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