Sunday, June 26, 2016

Rediscovering Jules Verne


I just finished reading Jules Verne’s Voyage au Centre de la Terre, in French. No, I did not enter it word for word into Google Translate. I’m now quite good at reading French, but still very bad at understanding spoken French and creating my own sentences. I am trying to get used to the abundance of silent letters in French. (For example, the last seven letters of appartiennent are silent.) I will be in France for a couple of weeks, so if I do not post anything for a while in July, that is the reason.

In 1969, I read Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (Vingt Mille Lieues sous les Mers) in English translation. It was the first book I read that was not a little-kid book. It was just the right book for a budding scientist and lover of words. Back then, I thought that good writing consisted of using complex words, many of which (like prodigious, lugubrious, lucubrations, and peregrinations) I learned from Verne. But it was not just a book about science nerds exploring the bottom of the sea (it was that, but more). Captain Nemo (the original man, not the fish) was such a captivating and mysterious character—one who wanted to take revenge against humankind for something, we did not find out what until the sequel (the much less interesting Myserious Island). Verne had a way of putting in exciting endings; in Twenty Thousand Leagues, it was swirling into the maelstrøm in the North Atlantic, and in Journey to the Center of the Earth it was getting spewed out of a volcano in Sicily.


Of course nobody could write a novel today after the fashion of Jules Verne. But he was creating a new kind of novel and was writing the rules for himself. And if he wanted to have a chapter that consisted of scholarly discussion, he could do so. I wish I could do so in my novels, but if I did, nobody would publish it. (Of course, nobody publishes them anyway…)

Verne had some interesting comments about scientists. In chapter XXXVIII of Journey, Professor Liedenbrock, who led the expedition, was normally very heroic and efficient. But when, in the vast underground vault, he and his team found not just a skeleton (ossements) but the actual desiccated corpse of an ape-man, he held it in his arms and knew that he was holding proof not only of human evolution but of a particular theory of human evolution that was being argued among scholars at the time. And the professor, holding the body, gave a lecture as if he were at a meeting of the top scientists of his day. (Liedenbrock also rejoiced in the evidence that the first humans were white. Yes, racism infected scientists, too, but at least we are trying to emerge from it.) This made me realize that we scientists are not merely dispassionate explorers of truth; we are members of a culture, a society, which consists of other scientists, and we feel their admiration or their disapproval very acutely. A scientist at an AAAS plenary session feels more or less like the Speaker of the House or an artist receiving a Grammy. I further realized that we scientists need to make sure that our passion is to open the eyes of non-scientists to the truth about the world, rather than just talking to ourselves and admiring one another.

Verne also shared the optimism of nineteenth-century science. The resources of the world were infinite and just waiting for science and technology to put them to use. “Ainsi se formèrent ces immenses couches de charbon que la consommation de tous les peuples, pendant de longs siècles encore, ne parviendra pas à épuiser” (Thus formed the immense layers of coal which consumption by all people during long centuries will not succeed in exhausting) right up to “la dernière  heure du monde.” We can now see how wrong he was, but he shared the opinion of all scientists at the time.

We scientists do our best to be objective, and in doing so we can experience the thrill of discovery. But we are also members of a social group, with its power plays, and we are also victims of bias. It is easy for us to see the power plays and biases of nineteenth-century scientists. It is harder for us to see our own.

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