Copernicus and the Wild Goose Chase

Our planetary companion, the Moon.
Credit: ESA

The inspiration for Thomas D’Urfrey’s comic production, Wonders of the Sun, was the world’s original science fiction story written in the English language – Francis Godwin’s Man in the Moone. Like its great rival for the honour of inventing modern science fiction, Johannes Kepler’s Somnium, Godwin’s story is an off-world voyage of discovery greatly influenced by the radical ideas of The New Philosophy, especially those of Copernicus.

Man in the Moone begins with a short account of the events that lead its Spanish protagonist, Domingo Gonsales, away from home to begin his travels. It is on the return journey to Spain from the East Indies that Gonsales is taken ill and is left to recuperate on the island of St Helena. Whilst there, in an effort to amuse himself, he hand rears some 30-40 wild geese, called gansas. Having tamed them, Gonsales has a moment of inspiration. He reasons that the gansas could be trained to carry objects from place to place. Determined to present his rational scheme to the Spanish court, he pays for passage for himself and his flock aboard a ship in a fleet bound for Europe. But the fleet is attacked by British Privateers and Gonsales’ ship is breached, and in an effort to reach the nearby shore Gonsales harnesses himself to all of the birds at once. The geese carry him higher and higher. Gonsales suddenly remembers that the geese migrate each year to the Moon to hibernate, and it is to the Moon they carry him.

Godwin then makes direct reference to the new physics:

“my Gansas took none other way then directly toward the Moone, but also, that when we rested (as at first we did for many howers) either we were insensibly carried (for I perceived no such motion) round about the Globe of the Earth, or else that (according to the late opinion of Copernicus) the Earth is carried about, and turneth round perpetually, from West to East, leaving unto the Planets onely that motion which Astronomers call naturall”

On leaving the Earth, Gonsales gets progressively lighter, and somewhat heavier on reaching the Moon – a clear example that Godwin was trying to convey a principle like that of gravity, flirted with by Kepler in his Astronomia Nova and established by Newton’s Principia (1687). On the Moon, Gonsales finds a utopia inhabited by a near-immortal race of giants, who can cure even the most mortal wound. Lunar women are so beautiful that no man wants to commit adultery. Indeed, crimes are unknown due to the eugenics programme run by the giants, who identify potential sinners and ship them to Earth, specifically North America!

Looking back
Credit: NASA

Francis Godwin, son of Thomas Godwin, Bishop of Bath and Wells, was born in Northamptonshire in 1562. He became a student of Christ Church, Oxford, where he took both bachelors and masters degrees. Whilst sub dean of Exeter Cathedral in 1601 he published his Catalogue of the Bishops of England since the first planting of the Christian Religion in this Island, a work which so impressed Elizabeth I that she gifted him the Bishopric of Llandaff. In 1616 he published an edition in Latin with a dedication to King James, who appreciative of this flattery conferred upon him the Bishopric of Hereford. But it was during his time as Bishop of Llandaff that Godwin conceived his science fictional travelogue.

There are two major influences to be charted within Man in the Moone. The early fictional obsession with space voyages began with the rapid powering of the economy from overseas trade through the European voyages of discovery. The influence of accurate celestial navigation upon voyages made at this time has been substantially documented. The Portuguese scholar Pedro Nunes Salaciense in his Treatise of the Sphere wrote in 1537, that there was at this time “a new sky and new stars”. It was this new spirit of endeavour that influenced Godwin to develop his work; his friendship with Hakluyts the geographer in Hereford, and his contact with merchant adventurers in Llandaff, provided him with ample source material for his narrative.

The second primary influence on Godwin was the revolution in astronomy that was already haunting Europe early in the seventeenth century. Man in the Moone was an extremely high profile and populist treatment of Copernicanism. The format of a fictional biography allowed its wider dissemination and this left a lasting legacy upon all who came across it. Godwin realised that to understand the new Moon of the Copernican universe, it was necessary not only to put one’s observations into words, but for the words themselves to be transformed by a new sort of fiction. That’s why there is something revolutionary and epoch-making about books like Man in the Moone in the history of science. Throwing words at the Moon, as it were, has a dialectic effect – the words come back to us changed. By imagining strange worlds, we come to see our own science in a new and potentially revolutionary perspective.

If Godwin’s agenda was to advance Copernicanism then he certainly succeeded. The principal reason for the success of Man in the Moone was the profound influence it was to have upon John Wilkins, secretary of the Royal Society and author of a scientific paper that dealt with lunar matters. Wilkins’ paper was amended to include an additional fourteenth proposition: “that tis possible for some of our posteritie, to find a conveyance to this other world; and if there be inhabitants there, to have commerce with them”. The extraterrestrial hypothesis moved far higher up the scientific agenda after Godwin.

Related Web Pages

Noah’s Ark on the Moon
Revisiting the Moon
Peaks of Eternal Light
Earth’s Childhood Attic
Why the Moon?
Astrobiology Magazine, European Edition
SETI and the Cosmic Quarantine Hypothesis