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Astrobiology's Influence in History, Philosophy, Literature, and Religion

French Tales of Infinity
Prof Mark Brake and Rev Neil Hook

The Dreadful Hammers of Jules Verne
Prof Mark Brake and Rev Neil Hook

Life of a Comet Hunter: Messier and Astrobiology
Professor Mark Brake and Martin Griffiths

Summary: The nineteenth century saw great changes in the clanging new workshops of the world. And, from an astrobiologist's point of view, this meant a profound revolution in the way we thought of the Earth's past. Emergent technology led to the new science of geology. And one of geology's first grand champions was French science fiction, Jules Verne.


The Dreadful Hammers of Jules Verne

"Were we required" , wrote Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle in 1829, "to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should call it the Mechanical Age" .   And how.   The early steam engine drove locomotives along their metal tracks; the first steamships crossed the Atlantic; the great transport magnates were building bridges and roads; telegraphs ticked intelligence from station to station; and a clamorous arc of iron foundries and coal-mines in the manufacturing centres powered this Industrial Revolution.  

Great engines of change were beginning to turn over the soil of the world.   The fossil record churned out signatures of beasts no longer to be found, challenging biblically literal accounts of natural history. Some would not be swayed by such evidence: Thomas Jefferson urged pioneers heading west to search for the woolly mammoth, and a deluded evangelical naturalist even reported having heard one trumpeting through the dark forests of Virginia.   Christian scholars had earlier estimated the age of the world by adding up the begats . In this way, Newton had concluded, given the years elapsed between Adam and Abraham, that the date of Creation was a mere 3998 BC; Kepler had dated it at 3993 BC.   This curious approach was taken to its most bizarre pinnacle by the Bishop of Armagh, James Ussher who had concluded "the beginning of time . fell on the beginning of the night which preceded the 23 rd of October, in the year . 4004 BC" . Such thoroughness is comforting.

But, as the death roll of extinction continued to grow, the French zoologist George Cuvier founded the science of palaeontology and the new geology revolutionised thought and feeling in The Mechanical Age .   Their effects spread far and wide beyond the scientific horizon, destroying established truths, forcing one and all to confront the terrible extent of history and time.   John Ruskin was moved to comment, in 1851, "If only the Geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers!   I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses" .

Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) wielded the new geology like a club.   If Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology was the manifesto of the emergent science, Verne's novel was its electioneer.   Drawing on a voyage narrative through a subterranean panorama, Verne's book sets out to explode the belief that the Earth had been held in stasis since the Creation a mere six thousand years ago.

Verne's creative journey had begun in 1863 with the first of 63 Voyages Extraordinaires : Voyages in Known and Unknown Worlds .   An early advertisement claimed Verne's goal was "to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format that is his own, the history of the universe" .   Some mission.

Verne was a technophile.   In great contrast to the mainstream of French science fiction from Cyrano de Bergerac on, his efforts established the marvellous machine as one of science fiction's most enduring motifs.   His novels, populated with aircraft, spaceships, and submarines, inspired one commentator, Professor Edward James, to suggest that "it is the machine that is the hero" in Verne's work.   And, rather than the growing association of machines as tools of the apocalypse as the century of change clanked on, it is Verne's technophilia that prevailed.

Subterranean Fire

Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) is classic Verne.   If the new science had its first great sceptic in Mary Shelley, it had its chief positivist in Verne.   Though the mythology of the machine is mostly absent here, the powerful and penetrative thrust of empire is unmistakable.   Reassuringly free of any offensive on bourgeois society, the book promotes the heady confidence in progress typical of the high culture of imperialism.   Verne's is a predictable universe in which the unknown is easily assimilated into our taxonomies.

The feeling of estrangement that permeates science fiction is bound to the scientific worldview, and the alienating discovery of the new universe.   Though this separation from nature began with Copernicanism, it reached its peak in The Mechanical Age , not only through the sheer pace of dizzying change, but also through the Victorian crisis in faith hastened by the emergent sciences of biology and geology.   The modern age of alienation had truly begun.   Accordingly, many of the science fictional narratives of the age can be seen as an attempt to repair this sudden separation from nature, to reload the emptiness, to somehow jack-in to the void.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth is dominated by such a conquest of space. Gone are Dante's mythical speculations of a lowly core, locus of the Devil and his legions.   In its place is the quest to possess nature absolutely for science.   To reach the core of the world is to achieve completion, to pierce the living heart of nature, the glittering prize.   Axel, nephew of the distinguished German geologist, Professor Lidenbrock , tells the story of the journey.   Pouring over a medieval volume written by the Icelandic alchemist Arne Saknussemm , the Professor had discovered a runic cryptogram, which suggests entry to the Earth's interior can be gained through the cone of a defunct Icelandic volcano, named Sneffels :

"Descend, bold traveller, into the crater of the jokul of Sneffels , which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the kalends of July, and you will attain the centre of the earth; I have done this, Arne Saknussemm "

The decoding of this cipher is Verne's opening salvo, written at a time when Christian chronologists clashed with the age-dating geologists.   The stark contrast, of course, was that the geologists studied not Scriptures but stones.   This is how Verne'e compatriot, the naturalist George Louis Leclerc had communicated the geologist's creed in 1778:

"Just as in civil history we consult warrants, study medallions, and decipher ancient inscriptions, in order to determine the epochs of the human revolutions and fix the dates of moral events, so in natural history one must dig through the archives of the world, extract ancient relics from the bowels of the earth, [and] gather together their fragments . This is the only way of fixing certain points in the immensity of space, and of placing a number of milestones on the eternal path of time" .

Scottish geologist, James Hutton, had breathtakingly declared in 1785, that the rocks revealed "no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end" .   English engineer William Smith had been among the first to decipher the hieroglyphics of the stones, once the steam engine had opened up the veins of the world.   Similarly, in Journey to the Centre of the Earth , Verne presents the novel's paradigm: nature is a cipher to be cracked.   And the key to the runes discovered by the Professor is that, much like the strata themselves, they have to be read backwards.   Indeed, Verne's story derives much of its narrative force from the notion that the expedition is also a quest into the depths of evolutionary time.

The trail blazed by geologist pioneers such as Hutton, Leclerc and Lyell had also inspired the palaeontologists.   George Cuvier had anticipated the idea of species extinction.   And once into the dominion of subterranean caverns, grottos and waters, Axel and the Professor find the interior alive with prehistoric plant and animal lifeforms , including a herd of mastodons, giant insects, and witness a deadly battle between an Ichthyosaurus and a Plesiosaurus. A giant prehistoric man found overlooking the mastodon herd is another of Verne's nods to contemporary science.   When the Professor lectures on the latest anthropological discoveries, he refers to Boucher de Perthes , who in 1863 had unearthed a human jaw in northern France, suggesting Man was over 100,000 years old. Verne waited until the discovery was confirmed before including it in his 1864 novel.   Significantly, this entire panorama is subjected to an orgy of classification at the hands of the travellers Axel and the Professor; to name is also to appropriate and conquer.   And through this taxonomy of nature is the attempt to bleed it of its strangeness, to render it human.

From the outset Professor Lidenbrock is portrayed as a scientific avatar locked in a lethal struggle against the nonhuman world .   The Professor's Baconian pursuit to triumph over nature is contrasted with Axel's romanticism.   Witness a typical dialogue when the travellers discover that a cavernous sea is subject to tidal forces such as those on the Earth's surface.   Axel is thrilled and enchanted, but the Professor, a model of bourgeois rationalism, merely lectures that subterranean waters will be just as prone to gravitation as any other sea:

"Here is the tide rising," I cried.
"Yes, Axel; and judging by these ridges of foam, you may observe that the sea will rise about twelve feet."
"This is wonderful," I said.
"No; it is quite natural."
"You may say so, uncle; but to me it is most extraordinary, and I can hardly believe my eyes. Who would ever have imagined, under this terrestrial crust, an ocean with ebbing and flowing tides, with winds and storms?"
"Well," replied my uncle, "is there any scientific reason against it?"
"No; I see none, as soon as the theory of central heat is given up." "So then, thus far," he answered, "the theory of Sir Humphry Davy is confirmed."

Towards the end of the book, Axel, considering the "wonderful hypotheses of paleontology " , is finally won over to the Professor's spirit of discovery and conquest.   Indeed, though they never do reach the Earth's core, the narrative takes one final twist.   On finally reaching the Earth's surface there is the frustrating mystery of the travellers' compass, which seems to hint they had strayed wildly on their journey.   The wayward compass indicates the explorers had travelled 1500 miles off course, which sends the Professor into apoplexy, "for a scientist an unexplained phenomenon is a torture of the mind" .   Later, however, recent convert Axel realises that the compass poles had merely been reversed during a subterranean electrical storm.   This rationalist postscript confirms our faith in the methods of science; to the last word nature is a code to be broken.

Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) is classic science fiction.   It expresses the taste, the feel, and the human meaning of the emerging scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century that science alone cannot do alone.   It is a perfect example of the way in which science fiction has been a unique, provocative and compelling touchstone of the dialectic of science and progress.

Professor Mark Brake and Reverend Neil Hook

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