5: Transforming a Stove Lid

Actually, Cyrano’s host has, himself, already given a good explanation of the infinite; he just doesn’t realize it yet. And Cyrano has one last jaw-dropper for him: the universe is not only infinite, it’s a recycling center.

“Faith,” Monsieur de Montmagny replied, “explain it as you will, I just can’t understand the infinite.”

“Okay,” I said, “do you understand any better the nothingness that lies beyond it? Not at all. When you think of nothingness, you imagine it as being at least like wind or air, but that is something. If you don’t understand the infinite in general, you can conceive of it at least in parts. It’s not hard to visualize earth, fire, water air, stars and the heavens. The infinite is only an unlimited texture containing all that.

“You ask me how those worlds were made, since Holy Writ speaks of only one that God created. I will say that it talks only about ours because it is the only one that God deigned to create by his own hand. All the others that we see or don’t see suspended in the firmament are nothing but the excretions of stars. And how could those great fires subsist unless they were attached to some kind of matter, which nourishes them?

“They are like fire, which expels the ash that would smother it. They are like gold in a crucible: it is refined as it is detached from the marcasite that diminishes its carat. They are like our stomach, which vomits when it has indigestion. In the same manner, the sun disgorges and purges itself every day of the remainder of the matter that feeds its fire.

“But when it has consumed all its fuel, you can be sure that it will spread out to seek new pasture on all sides. It will attach itself to the worlds it has previously made, especially the nearer ones. Then, this great fire will make a new mixture of all bodies and will spill them out again pell-mell in all directions, just as before. It will gradually purify itself and begin to be a sun to the little worlds that it creates and ejects from its body. That is probably why the Pythagoreans predicted that the world will end in fire.

“This is not just some ridiculous imagining. New France, where we are now, gives convincing evidence for it. This vast continent of America is half the earth. Our predecessors sailed the ocean a thousand times without discovering it. Was it not therefore only a lot of islands, peninsulas and mountains that arose on our globe when the sun cleansed itself and expelled matter far enough? And when this matter condensed into masses heavy enough to be attracted by the center of our world? Perhaps it happened gradually, in small particles; perhaps all at once, in one big mass.

“That is not so unreasonable that Saint Augustine would not have applauded it, had the discovery of this country been made in his time. That great man, whose mind was enlightened by the Holy Spirit, states that in his day and age the earth was as flat as a stove lid and that it floated on water like half of a sliced orange. But if I ever have the honour of seeing you in France, I will have you look through a most excellent lens that I have. You will observe that things that look like dark spots from here are worlds in the making.”

My eyes were closing as I finished this speech, and Monsieur de Montmagny was obliged to bid me good night. The next day and the days following, we had similar conversations. But after a while the press of business in the province put an end to our philosophizing, and I returned with increased determination to my plans to fly to the Moon.

Cyrano knows little about sunspots and has not heard of solar accretion disks, fusion reactions or novas. For all he knows, planets are ejected from stars. And yet his description of the sun’s end is, in the main, eerily accurate. We may sometimes smile broadly at Cyrano, but he will be paying us no attention: he will be studying with fascination the evidence for continental drift and the earth’s continual gathering of interplanetary dust, not to mention solar physics and meteorites from Mars.

Magellan’s voyage was only about 125 years in the past when Cyrano was writing L’Autre Monde. Cyrano poses a challenge: which makes more sense, to view the universe as a stove lid — no, make that an orange — floating on water or as the dynamic, organic system we see about us? Cyrano says you don’t have to believe him; look through a telescope and see for yourself.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, rationalists would ridicule the Church and the people of the Middle Ages generally as being devout “flat-earthers.” But that misses the point. Eratosthenes knew the world was round and may even have correctly estimated its size. The knowledge was never lost, but it mattered only to astronomers. If anyone in a pre-scientific age did not see the world as a globe or planet, as we do, he may be excused for at least taking a practical view. Did even so bold an ocean-going navigator as Leif Erickson really care whether the Earth was round or flat? Why should he?

Cyrano’s cosmology also anticipates by more than a century the famous formula of Lavoisier, the founder of modern chemistry: Rien ne se perd, rien ne se crée. Dans la nature, tout se transforme. — ‘Nothing is lost, nothing is created. In nature, everything is transformed’.