Cyrano, a false lead:
I have just finished reading The Comical History of the Sates and Empires of the Worlds of the Moon and sun Written in French by Cyrano Bergerac: and Newly Englished by A. Lovell …(1697)  My motivation was this: Of course you know that there is a play “Cyrano” written by Edmond Rostand in 1897.  I always thought Cyrano was a fictitious character, but he was quite real and did indeed make enemies rather easily.  Hr was a student of Pierre Gassendi, who according to wikipedia was a French philosopher, priest, scientist, astronomer and mathematician.  His last books were published a few years after his death at age 36.  There are hints that he died of wounds suffered while defending his patron from an assassination attempt.  After reading his book I thought had he lived at the time of Rostand’s play we would have called him a Romantic, but he is very interested in science and philosophy, so Age of Reason owns him.  When I realized that his final book was published just a few years before Newton left Cambridge and returned home for a few years because of the threat of plague, it seemed reasonable to think Isaac read Cyrano during that time.  It seems clear that Newton came up with his Laws of Motion during that time, and in his book Cyrano does raise a question that Newton addresses.  Newton also was arguably interested in fertility so I wondered whether Cyrano was.  A number of things emerged.

Science fiction: The first science fiction story is often credited to Johannes Kepler, the great astronomer.  Kepler’s story also involves the moon, but the way to get there is with the help of a devil.  In my opinion that is magic and thus the story is science fantasy.  Cyrano’s book involves no magic but often explains apparently magical effects by applying science.  Of course this is pre-Newtonian science, which is not highly developed.

State of science: Pope wrote a couplet describing the state of science before and after Newton; there was a very big shift.  Cyrano’s science is pre-Newtonian, and the book makes much mirth of the proposition of what things would be like were the contemporary scientific laws true. 

Gravity:  When Cyrano’s narrator arrives at the moon and when he later reaches the sun he is able to walk about.  So gravity draws anything nearby to the heavenly body.  This was not new with Cyrano, however.

Laws of motion: At one point there is a description of a vehicle that can ascend by the use of a magnet.  Consider this:  you have a magnet and an iron plate.  You abruptly move the magnet close to the plate.  The magnetism reaches down toward the plate, and of course the plate pulls back.  There is no acceleration of the system.  This is explained by saying, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  So we are happy.

Relativity: But not quite.  For the plate to pull back, some signal must travel to the magnet to tell it the plate is there.  Before it gets there you move the magnet away.  The plate does not sense the magnetism until some finite time has passed; the magnet never senses the plate, so there is a net acceleration.  This of course does not work, by why not?  The answer is that by moving the magnet you have distorted time and space in such fashion that it all cancels out.  Don’t say Einstein disproved Newton; Einstein rescued Newton from Cyrano.

The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics: For many years we were taught the quantum effects were such that “nothing exists until it is observed.”  I think they have pulled back on that, but it still carries much weight.  You might say, “It is as if nothing exists until it is observed.”  Cyrano’s book makes much of the possible effect of imagination on reality, particularly on the state of the body and mind.  Thinking yourself healthy tends to make you healthy. 

Id, ego and superego:  Plato divided the human into three parts, which were the body, the mind and the passions.  Freud called them id, ego and superego.  Cyrano does not divide the body from the mind, but he goes so far as to divide the mind into memory, imagination and judgment.  You might like that better. 

Evolution: The book describes a society in which all children are taken to a clinic where their noses are measured.  The have decided that wit, intelligence and so forth are correlated with nose size.  If the infant has a short nose it is immediately castrated.  Of course you know Cyrano himself had a big nose.  But notice that the castration does not immediately change the intelligence of the community.  It only prevents the child from passing the trait on.  So we have evolution, which is the inheritance of inheritable variation and then selection on the basis of that variation.  Real life also includes speciation, which Cyrano does not address, but then neither did Darwin to any significant degree.

Atoms:  Cyrano was interested in the Epicurean philosophy of atoms, as was Gassendi, his teacher.  But that theory of atoms does not admit to there being any vacuum.  The atoms fill it all.  Cyrano’s narrator points out that there are some serious geometric problems here.  I was amazed once to read that atoms were not really considered to be proven until Einstein explained the Brownian motion of smoke particles under the microscope by saying that the particles are being bumped by air molecules. 

Solar powered ram jet: The narrator builds a vehicle that allows air in at the bottom, heats it with concentrated sunlight and emits it from the top.  Obviously this would push the vehicle downward, but had he directed the emerging air across the top of the box it would, in principle, have generated lift.  Actually this has never been built. 

Incarceration: A recurrent plot element that is that the narrator seems always to be getting thrown into jail.  In fact Cyrano himself was at one point confined to an asylum because of a plot by his enemies.  He does not have much positive to say about the experience.

Death penalty: Some societies the narrator visits employ it and some do not.  Without saying so, Cyrano makes it quite clear that in his opinion this is a bad plan. 

Satire:  There’s plenty of that.  For instance, he lives in a time when empires are what bring respect, but his universe is infinite.  Terrestrial empires are trivial in the big picture.  

Sexual orientation: The ideas seem very modern.

The humors: A humor is a substance that is distributed throughout the intercellular space of your body.  If you measure things like electrolytes and proteins, you are measuring humors.  If a doctor decides that there is not enough potassium in your system and gives you some, she/he is balancing your humors.  Blood letting was one means that doctors used to try to balance the humors.  The idea goes back thousands of years.  At one time the humors were thought to be blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile.  Billirubin in different forms and related compounds are still considered humors, blood and phlegm not, but cut it any way you want to, and there are a lot more humors than four. 

In the old thinking, there were two humors that were particularly bad, although it was the balance that really mattered.  Black bile made you sad and weak or “melancholy.”  Yellow bile (I trust you noticed that “billirubin” means red bile.  We don’t speak of yellow bile any longer, even though excessive bile in your system will turn you yellow; we say red bile so as not to get confused with the old system) makes you irascible and unstable.  The narrator remarks quite blandly that he is a melancholic, choleric disposition.  Yet he is obviously friendly, physically energetic, emotionally resilient, endlessly patient and optimistic; he is sanguine and phlegmatic.  It’s just another dig at another set of absurdities Cyrano found himself surrounded by.

Overall, the book is deliberately and extremely outrageous.  Yet for so thin a volume he does introduce a lot of ideas along with a lot of adventure.

But he never mentions fertility.

There have been 97 visitors over the past month.

Home page