Scientist of the Day - Bernard de Fontenelle
Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, a French scientific writer, was born Feb. 11, 1657. In 1686, Fontenelle published a rather remarkable book, Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes, or Conversations on a Plurality of Worlds. Fontenelle was a follower of René Descartes, who had proposed that stars are suns that are very far away, and could well have planets about them. Fontenelle pursued this idea in his Conversations, arguing that there might be inhabitants on these other worlds. Kepler had earlier conjectured about possible inhabitants on the moon, but no one before Fontenelle had seriously proposed that there might be intelligent life outside the solar system.
In addition to the novelty of its ideas, Conversations is unusual in its literary format; the conversations alluded to in the title refer to the fact that the book is an extended discussion between an astronomer and a woman who wants to know all about the universe. Women were seldom included in any kind of scientific context in the 17th century, so it is refreshing to meet one here, and a woman who is intelligent and curious to boot. Fontenelle's book was quite popular, in France and elsewhere, and it was translated into English three separate times in 1687 and 1688. One of the translators, appropriately, was Aphra Behn, the first English woman to earn a living as an author. The first French edition has a large folding engraving showing the Cartesian universe (see first image above), with its swirling vortices of stars and planets, and most later editions add a frontispiece that includes a depiction of the woman and the philosopher (the title pages to the 1701 French and the 1715 English editions are shown above as the second and third images).
There are many portraits of Fontenelle in France, but we prefer the terra cotta bust that is in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. It depicts Fontenelle, with appropriate artistic license, when he was 92 years old (and still very much among the living).
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City