Saturday, July 31, 2010

Delightful scientific romp...without costs (Books - Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne)

I re-read Jules Verne's delightful scientific romp (for the first time since I was about 12 years old) in connection for a project at my lab. The connection between the book and my lab is a long story I won't get into, but I found myself drawn in all over again to the combination of curiosity about the facts that describe the actual we inhabit and a confection of suspense and adventure by the father of science fiction.

The story concerns a nineteenth-century German geologist and his naive nephew on a journey they try to make to the earth's core when they uncover an ancient cipher that gives them directions via the crater of an icelandic volcano (ring any bells?). Many of the details of the book are faithful to the mid-nineteenth century understanding that Verne's contemporary measurers and thinkers possessed. But there are also flights of sheer fancy that don't remotely conform to anything that could be possible. Progressing that far, I found that I was invested enough in the progress of the narrative to believe in them for the sake of the story.

Two things struck me about this fantasy. One was the preponderance not just facts we know and the hypotheses that flow from the knowledge naturally curious minds possess, but also the quality of thinking which we would term today "critical." For example:
"There is a positive pleasure even in feeling one's self getting into a denser atmosphere. Have you noticed the wonderful clearness of sound here?"

"Yes, indeed. A deaf man would soon get his hearing again."

"But this density will of course increase?"

"Yes, according to a somewhat indefinite law. It is true that the intensity of the weight will diminish in proportion as we descend. You know that it is on the surface that its action is most felt and at the centre of the globe objects have no longer any weight..."

"How shall we descend then?"

"Well, we must put stones in our pockets."

"I declare, uncle, you have an answer for everything."

I did not dare to go any father into the field of hypothesis, for I should have been sure to have stumbled on some impossibility, which would have made the professor start out again.

But it was quite evident that the air, under a pressure of possibly a thousand atmospheres, would pass at last into a solid state; and in that case, even supposing that our bodies might have held out, we should be forced to stop in spite of all the reasonings in the world.

But it was no use advancing this argument. My uncle would have met me with that everlasting Saknussemm, a precedent of not the slightest value, for even quoting the truth of the learned Icelander's narrative, this simple answer might be made to it: "In the sixteenth century neither barometers nor manometers were invented, consequently, how could Saknussemm know that he had reached the centre of the earth?"
There is a propensity to question, to doubt, out of respect not disrespect, that is evident in this book. There was a time criticism was deemed valuable to the accumulation of knowledge. I was also struck in this novel with this fact. When faced with a wall of granite that stood between them and the knowledge they sought, the solution of the professor and his nephew was dynamite. Symptomatic of all that is good but also all that has been destructive in our acquisition of knowledge - they blew it up. The result is that they gain the knowledge they seek but much havoc has been wrought in our attempt to understand the way the world works. Nuclear energy is one such example. With the hindsight of nearly 150 years, this novel offers clear examples of this urge naively pursued. Journey to the Centre of the Earth remains a fantastical entertainment but is unwitting about the potential costs of such exploration. However, these were salient to me in the light of the recent BP disaster, although this being what one would define in a literary sense as a comedy - there are no lasting consequences.

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