Eternity by the Stars (1872)
The Universe; The Infinite
The universe is eternal in time and space – eternal, boundless and indivisible. All bodies, animate and inanimate, solid, liquid and gaseous, are linked by the very things that separate them. Everything holds together. Without the astral bodies [astres], only space would remain, absolutely empty no doubt, but retaining the three dimensions, length, width and depth – indivisible and unlimited space.
Pascal once said, in his magnificent style: ‘The universe is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.’ Could there be a more striking image of infinity? After him, let us say, a little more precisely: the universe is a sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose surface is nowhere.
The universe lies before us, open to observation and reasoning. Innumerable astral bodies shine within its depths. Let us imagine ourselves at the centre of one of these spheres, which are everywhere and whose surface is nowhere, and also assume for a moment the existence of this surface, which is therefore found at the limit of the world.
Will this limit be solid, liquid or gaseous? Whatever its nature, it immediately becomes the extension of what it demarcates or claims to demarcate. Let us assume that no solids, liquids, gases – not even ether – exist at this point. There is nothing but black and empty space. This space will still possess the three dimensions, however, and it will necessarily have as its limit – which is to say, as its continuation – a new portion of space of the same nature, and then another after that, then yet another still, and so on, indefinitely.
The infinite can only be presented to us through its appearance as indefinite. The one notion leads to the other through our manifest inability to find, or even to conceive of, a limitation to space. An infinite universe is certainly incomprehensible, but a limited universe is absurd. This absolute certainty of the infinity of the world, together with its incomprehensibility, constitutes one of the most irritating provocations that torments the human mind. No doubt somewhere, on some wandering world, there exist brains powerful enough to comprehend the enigma that remains impenetrable to our own. Our jealousy has to come to terms with this fact.
This enigma is just the same for the infinite in time as it is for the infinite in space. The eternity of the world seizes our intelligence even more vividly than its immensity. If one does not concede that the universe has boundaries, how can one accept the idea of its non-existence? Matter did not arise from nothingness. It will not return to nothingness. It is eternal, imperishable. Although it is undergoing constant transformation, it can neither diminish nor grow by one atom.
If matter is infinite in time, why would it not be so in extension or space? The two infinities are inseparable. The one implies the other, and to deny this is to invite contradiction and absurdity. Science has not yet discovered a law of interdependence between space and the globes that cross it. Heat, motion, light and electricity are necessary throughout the entirety of extension. Many capable men think that none of its parts could remain widowed from these great luminous spheres [foyers] which sustain worlds. Our opuscule rests entirely on this opinion; it assumes that the infinity of space is filled with the infinity of globes, leaving no corners of darkness, solitude or immobility anywhere.
Any idea of the infinite, even a weak and poor one, can only be taken from the indefinite. And yet even such a weak and poor idea still appears imposing and formidable. Sixty-two digits, a number that takes about 15 centimetres of a page to write, can measure a span of 20 octodecillion leagues or, in other words, billions and billions and billions and billions and billions of times the distance that separates the Sun from the Earth.
Then imagine a line of digits going from here to the Sun – that is to say, not one of 15 centimetres, but of 37 million leagues. Is not the expanse that this enumeration would cover frightening? Now take this expanse itself as a unit in the following number: the line of digits that it forms begins on Earth and ends at that star over there, the one whose light takes more than a thousand years to reach us, at a speed of 75,000 leagues per second. Think of the distance such a calculation would produce, assuming that language could even find the words and the time to express it!
One can thus prolong the indefinite as much as one wants without
exceeding the limits of intelligence, but also without even beginning to convey infinity. If each word denoted the most frightening of distances, one would have to say one word per second for billions and billions of centuries in order to express no more than something insignificant when it comes to the infinite.
The Prodigious Distances of the Stars
The universe seems to unfold in all its immensity before our gaze. In reality we see little more than a tiny part of it. The Sun is one of the stars of the Milky Way, that great stellar gathering that sweeps across half of the sky, and whose constellations are nothing more than detached members, scattered across the vault of the night. Beyond it are a few imperceptible points, piercing the firmament, signalling the stars half-extinguished by distance; and further still, in the concealed depths, the telescope is able to make out the nebulae, small star clusters of pale dust, the background of the Milky Way.
The remoteness of these bodies is prodigious. It eludes all the calculations of the astronomers who have tried in vain to discover a parallax for some of the brightest among them: Sirius, Altair, Vega (of the Lyre). Their results have not attained any credence and remain very problematic. They are vague approximations, or rather estimations of minimal distances that put the closest stars at more than 7,000 billion leagues away. The best observed among them, 61 Cygni, gave a distance of 23,000 billion leagues, 658,700 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun.
Travelling at 75,000 leagues per second, light will cover this distance in ten years and three months. The same journey by rail, travelling at ten leagues per hour, without stopping or slowing down, would last 250 million years. It would take 400 years to get to the Sun on the same train. The Earth, which travels 233 million leagues every year, would take 100,000 years to get to 61 Cygni.
The stars are suns similar to our own. Sirius is said to be 150 times larger than ours. Although possible, this cannot be verified. The disparities in volume between these luminous spheres should certainly be extremely large. But for us the comparison is beyond our grasp in any case, and apparent differences in size and brightness can scarcely be understood as anything but questions of distance, or rather questions of doubt. For without sufficient data, any assessment would be foolhardy.
The Physical Composition of the Stars
Nature is marvellously skilled in the art of adapting organisms to different environments without ever departing from the general plan that governs all its work. With simple modifications it is able to multiply its types to a seemingly impossible degree. It has been quite wrongly assumed that on other celestial bodies there might be situations and beings, both equally fantastical, that in no way resemble the inhabitants of our planet. No doubt a myriad of forms and mechanisms do exist. But the plan and the materials remain invariable. One can confidently affirm that, even at the opposite extremities of the universe, nerve centers are the base and electricity the principal agent of all forms of animal life. All other [organic] systems and apparatuses are subordinate to it, in the thousands of ways that might be in keeping with each environment. The same principle certainly applies in our own planetary group, which must contain innumerable series of differing forms of organization. One need not even leave the Earth to see this almost limitless diversity.
We have always considered our globe to be the Queen of planets – a vanity that has often been humbled. We are mere intruders in the very group that our vainglory pretends to see bowing before its supremacy. It is density that determines the physical constitution of an astral body. And our density is not that of the solar system. It is nothing but a minuscule exception that almost puts us outside the true family that is composed of the Sun and the large planets. With respect to the full cortège or sequence [cortège] of planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars together only make up, in terms of volume, 2 parts out of 2,417; if you include the Sun as well, then the small planets account only for 2 out of 1,281,684. In other words, we count for nothing!
Faced with such disparities, only a few years ago the field was still open to speculation regarding the structure of celestial bodies. The only thing that seemed beyond doubt was that they would in no way resemble ours. We were mistaken. Spectral analysis has since dispelled this error and shown, in spite of many appearances to the contrary, that there is an identity in the composition of the universe. The forms are innumerable, the elements remain the same. Here we come to the fundamental question, one that overshadows and pushes aside all others. It must therefore be considered in detail, proceeding from the known to the unknown.
As things stand, on our planet the only elements available to nature are the sixty-four simple bodies listed below. We say ‘as things stand’ because we knew of only fifty-three of these bodies a few years ago. Every now and then, their nomenclature is enriched by the discovery of some metal that, through chemistry, has been extracted with great difficulty from the stubborn bonds that link it to oxygen. It is likely that our sixty-four may eventually grow to reach around one hundred. But the key actors number not much more than twenty-five. The rest play only minor parts. They are called simple bodies because until now they have been found to be irreducible. We shall arrange them here more or less in order of importance:
1.Hydrogen 2. Oxygen 3. Nitrogen 4. Carbon 5. Phosphorus 6. Sulphur 7. Calcium 8. Silicon 9. Potassium 10. Sodium 11. Aluminium 12. Chlorine 13. Iodine 14. Iron 15. Magnesium 16. Copper 17. Silver 18. Lead 19. Mercury 20. Antimony 21. Barium 22. Chromium 23. Bromine 24. Bismuth 25. Zinc 26. Arsenic 27. Platinum 28. Tin 29. Gold 30. Nickel 31. Beryllium [Glucinium] 32. Fluorine 33. Manganese 34. Zirconium 35. Cobalt 36. Iridium 37. Boron 38. Strontium 39. Molybdenum 40. Palladium 41. Titanium 42. Cadmium 43. Selenium 44. Osmium 45. Rubidium 46. Lanthanum 47. Tellurium 48. Tungsten 49. Uranium 50. Tantalum 51. Lithium 52. Niobium 53. Rhodium 54. Didymium 55. Indium 56. Terbium 57. Thallium 58. Thorium 59. Vanadium 60. Ytterbium 61. Caesium 62. Ruthenium 63. Erbium 64. Cerium.
The first four – hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon – are the great agents of nature. Their effects are so universal that it is hard to say which of them should be given precedence. Hydrogen nonetheless comes first because it is the light of all the stars. These four gases alone constitute almost all organic matter, flora and fauna, when combined with calcium, phosphorous, sulphur, sodium, potassium, and so on.
Hydrogen and oxygen form water, along with chlorine, sodium and iodine for the sea. Silicon, calcium, aluminium and magnesium, together with oxygen, carbon, etc., constitute the great mass of geological formations– the superimposed layers of the Earth’s crust. Precious metals matter more to mankind than they do in nature.
Even until recently, these elements were taken to be unique to our world. There used to be great controversies about the Sun, for example, regarding its composition, origin and the nature of its light! The great quarrel over emissions and undulations has only just come to an end; the recent rear-guard skirmishes still reverberate. The victorious supporters of undulations then went on to propose, on the basis of their success, the following, some- what fantastic theory: ‘The Sun – an opaque simple body like any other planet – is shrouded by two atmospheres: the first, which is similar to ours,
‘serves as a parasol protecting the natives [indigènes] against the second, known as the photosphere, which is the eternal and inexhaustible source of light and heat.’
This universally accepted doctrine has reigned in science for a long time, in spite of all the analogies that suggest otherwise. The central fire that roars beneath our feet sufficiently attests to the fact that the Earth was once what the Sun is today, and the Earth has never been covered with an electrical photosphere graced with the gift of perennial existence.
Spectral analysis has dispelled these errors. It is no longer a question of inexhaustible and perpetual electricity, but, quite simply, of hydrogen burning, here as elsewhere, in combination with oxygen. The sun’s pink protuberances are tremendous streams of this flaming gas, which extend beyond the halo that surrounds the moon during total solar eclipses. As for sunspots, they have been rightly represented as vast, open craters within the masses of gas. The flames of hydrogen that have been swept away by storms across these immense surfaces are what enable us to see the astral body’s nucleus– not as a black opacity, but as something relatively dark – in either its liquid or its highly compressed gaseous state.
Gone are the chimeras, then. We have here two terrestrial elements that light up the whole universe, just as they light up the streets of Paris and London. Their combination is what gives off light and heat. It is the product of this combination, water, that creates and sustains organic life. Without water there is no atmosphere, no flora or fauna – nothing but the cadaver of the moon.
There is an ocean of flames among the stars to vitalise, an ocean of water on the planets to organise; the association of hydrogen and oxygen is the government of matter, and sodium their inseparable companion in their two opposed forms: fire and water. In the solar spectrum, sodium shines in the front ranks; it is the main element in the salt of the seas.
These seas, so peaceful today despite their gentle ripples, were once whipped up in completely different kinds of storms, back when they whirled around in devouring flames on the Earth’s lava. It is still the very same mass of hydrogen and oxygen, but what a metamorphosis! The evolution is complete. It will likewise be completed on the Sun. Its spots already show fleeting lacunae in the combustion of hydrogen that will, with time, continue to grow until they eventually become permanent. This time will no doubt be measured in millennia, but it is running out.
The Sun is a star in its decline. A day will come when the product of the combination of hydrogen and oxygen, ceasing to decompose repeatedly so as to regenerate the two elements separately, will instead remain what it should be: water. This day will see the end of the reign of flames and the beginning of that of aqueous vapours, whose final stage is the sea. As the thick masses of these vapours shroud the deposed star, our planetary world will fall into eternal night.
Humanity will have time to learn a great many things before this fatal end. Through spectrometry, we already know that half of the sixty-four simple bodies that constitute our planet also form part of the Sun, the stars and their satellites. We know that the entire universe gets light, heat and organic life from the combination of hydrogen and oxygen as either fire or water.
Not all the simple bodies appear in the solar spectrum, and the spectra of the Sun and the stars both reveal the existence of elements that remain unknown to us. But this science is still new and untested. It has barely uttered its first words, and they have already been decisive. The elements that compose celestial bodies are everywhere identical. The future will only offer further proof of this identity. The differences in density – which at first glance seemed to present an insurmountable obstacle to finding any similarity between the planets of our system – lose much of their distinguishing significance when one sees that the Sun, whose density is a quarter of ours, contains metals such as iron (which has a density of 7.80), nickel (8.67), copper (9.95), zinc (7.19), cobalt (7.81), cadmium (8.69) and chromium (5.90)
There is nothing more natural than the fact that simple bodies exist on different globes in unequal proportions, and thereby give rise to divergences in density. A nebula’s materials must, of course, be classified on each planet according to the laws of gravity. But this classification does not prevent the simple bodies from coexisting within the whole of the nebula, even if they are then divided up according to a certain order, in keeping with these laws. This is precisely the case in our own system, and seemingly also in that of other stellar groups. We will consider the conditions that arise from this fact later.
Observations on Laplace’s Cosmogony: The Comets
Laplace derived his hypothesis from conclusions Herschel drew from his telescope. As a result of his mathematical background and approach, the illustrious geometer dealt mostly with the motion of astral bodies, and very little with their nature. He engaged with the physical questions only in passing and through simple affirmations, always seeking to return to his main concern – gravitational calculations. His theory is clearly wrestling with two fundamental issues: the origin and high temperatures of nebulae on the one hand, and comets on the other. Let us put the nebulae to one side for now and consider the comets. Unable to find any place for them in his system, in order to be rid of them the author sent them off to wander from star to star. Let us follow along after them, to see if we can have done with them ourselves.
Everyone today has profound contempt for comets, these miserable playthings that the larger planets jostle around, tug and pull at in hundreds of different ways, inflate with the Sun’s flames, and finally discard in tatters. How the mighty have fallen! They were once so humbly respected, when they were hailed as messengers of death! But since they were found to be harmless there has been nothing but boos and jeers! Such is the way of mankind.
This impertinence is not expressed without a touch of concern, however. Oracles are not without contradictions. Thus Arago – after having repeatedly proclaimed the absolute nullity of comets, after having affirmed that the most perfect vacuum of a pneumatic machine is even denser than cometary substance – nevertheless admitted in a chapter of one of his works that ‘the transformation of the Earth into the satellite of a comet is not beyond the realm of possibility’.
Even so careful and serious a scholar as Laplace likewise outlines the arguments for and against such a question. He writes somewhere: ‘A comet’s collision with the Earth could not produce any noticeable effect. It is highly likely that comets have enveloped it several times without this even having been noticed . . .’ But elsewhere:
It is easy to imagine the effects of the impact of a comet on the Earth: the axis and motion of rotation would change; the seas would abandon their former positions to rush towards the new equator; a great number of men and animals would drown in the universal deluge or be destroyed by the violent jolt transmitted to the Earth, entire species would be annihilated . . .
It is remarkable to see such a categorical yes and no in the writings of a mathematician. Gravitational attraction, that fundamental dogma of astronomy, is sometimes equally ill-treated, as we will see when we consider the question of zodiacal light.
Several different explanations have already been offered for this phenomenon. It was first attributed to the atmosphere of the sun – an idea that Laplace strongly opposed. According to him,
the solar atmosphere does not reach the halfway point of Mercury’s orbit. The zodiacal lights are the result of molecules that were too volatile to combine themselves with the planets during the period of their great initial formation, and that today circle around the central astral body. Their extreme tenacity poses no resistance to the course of celestial bodies, giving us this light that is permeable to stars.
Such a hypothesis is highly unlikely. Planetary molecules volatilised by high temperatures do not conserve their heat eternally. They would not, therefore, maintain their gaseous form in the icy deserts of the expanse. Moreover, and despite whatever Laplace might say about it, this matter (however tenuous we might suppose it to be) would still represent a significant obstacle to the movements of celestial bodies, and in time would lead to serious disturbances.
The same objection disproves a recent idea attributing zodiacal light to fragments of comets broken up in the storms of the perihelion. These remains, it is claimed, form a vast ocean that encompasses and even surpasses the orbits of Mercury, Venus and the Earth. To confuse the comets’ nullity with that of the ether, or even with emptiness itself, is to heighten disdain for comets further still. No, the planets would not easily make their way across these nebulosities, and in this scenario gravitation itself would soon come to grief.
It seems even less rational to look for the origin of the mysterious lights of the zodiacal region in a ring of meteors circling around the Sun – meteors that, by their very nature, are not very permeable to starlight.
Perhaps if we go back a little further we might find the answer. Arago somewhere says: ‘Cometary matter has been able to enter into our atmosphere quite frequently. If it does so it does not pose any danger. We can pass through a comet’s tail without even noticing it . . .’ Laplace is no less explicit: ‘It is highly probable’, he writes, ‘that comets have enveloped the Earth several times without having been noticed . . .’
No doubt everyone can agree with this. But we might still ask the two astronomers to explain what became of these comets. Did they continue their journey? Is it possible for them to free themselves from the Earth’s grip and to continue on their course? Has gravitational attraction therefore ceased? What! This vague cometary effluence – whose nothingness language struggles to define – somehow defies the force that governs the universe!
One could understand how two massive globes, travelling at full speed, might pass each other at a tangent and then continue to speed along after a double jolt. But to suggest that some inane and wandering objects might merge into our atmosphere and then calmly detach themselves so as to continue on their own course is very far-fetched. Why do these diffuse vapours not remain firmly attached to our planet by gravity?
‘Precisely because they weigh nothing at all!’, it will be claimed. ‘Their very lightness is what protects them. No mass, no attraction.’ This is flawed logic. If they break away from us to rejoin their own forces or army it is because these forces attract them and take them from us. On what grounds? The Earth is far superior to them in strength. Comets, as we know, do not disturb anyone; and yet everyone disturbs them because they are the humble slaves of attraction. How could they ever stop obeying attraction, particularly when our globe takes hold of them and cannot let go? The Sun is too far away to contest the power that binds them so tightly, and even if it managed to drag away the front line of one of these swarms of comets, the rear guard, broken off and dislocated, would still remain under the Earth’s control.
Many still speak, however, of comets that surround and then abandon our globe, as if it were that straightforward. No one has yet made the slightest observation that might confirm this point. Is the rapid movement of these astral bodies enough for them to elude the effects of the Earth, and does the impulse they acquire as a result propel them along their own course? Such an attack on the law of gravity is impossible, and this may help account for zodiacal light. The cometary detachments – taken prisoner in these sidereal encounters and driven back towards the equator through the Earth’s rotation – develop into the lenticular bulges that are illuminated by the Sun’s rays before daybreak, and particularly after dusk. The heat of the day causes them to expand and makes their luminosity more noticeable than it is in the morning, after having cooled during the night.
These diaphanous masses, which appear to be entirely cometary and permeable to the light of the smallest stars, occupy an immense expanse going from the equator – their centre, and the point at which their altitude and brilliance rise to their highest – to far beyond the tropics and probably as far as the two poles, where they drop, contract and extinguish.
Until now, zodiacal light had always been lodged outside the Earth, and it was difficult to assign it either a place or a nature compatible with both its permanence and its variations. But it is the Earth itself that is its cause, since it is wound round its atmosphere, without the weight of the atmospheric column increasing by a single atom. This poor substance could not provide more conclusive proof of its own inanity or emptiness.
The comets, in their visits [to Earth], may well renew their imprisoned contingents more often than is thought. Moreover, these contingents could not exceed a certain height without being skimmed and plundered by centrifugal force, which carries its spoils away with it into space. The terrestrial atmosphere is thus lined with a cometary envelope that is more or less imponderable, and the centre and source of zodiacal light. This explanation is not only consistent with the diaphanous nature of the comets, but also takes account of the law of gravity, which prevents those detachments captured by planets from escaping.
Let us return to the history of these blaze-tailed nullities [nihilités chevelus]. If they evade Saturn they then fall prey to Jupiter, the policeman of the system. Standing guard in the shadows, it senses the comets even before one of the Sun’s rays makes them visible. It then overpowers them and drags them down into its perilous abyss. There, captured and monstrously dilated by the heat, they lose their form and grow longer. They are disaggregated and escape the terrible pass in a chaotic retreat. Leaving stragglers everywhere, they are only able to regain their unknown solitudes with great difficulty, protected by the extreme cold.
Only those comets that evade all the traps of the planetary zone escape. This is how, having avoided the fatal gorges, and leaving, in the distance of the zodiacal plains, the fat spiders [araignées] to wander along the edge of their webs, the comet of 1811 swooped down from the polar heights to the ecliptic. It outflanked and rapidly turned around the Sun, before again rallying and re-forming its immense columns that had been scattered by enemy fire. Only after the manoeuvre has been successfully executed does the comet deploy, before the eyes of stupefied onlookers, the splendour of its army, before majestically continuing its victorious retreat into the depths of space.
Such triumphs are rare. The poor comets arrive in their thousands, and are quickly lured into danger. Like moths, they carelessly rush from the depths of the night and pirouette around the flame that draws them in; they do not manage to slip away without leaving a mass of casualties and debris, strewn across the fields of the ecliptic. If some chroniclers of the heavens are to be believed, between the Sun and a zone beyond the terrestrial orb sprawls a vast cemetery of comets, with a mysterious glow that appears in the evenings and mornings of clear days. The deaths of these luminous phantoms are seen as they allow the light of the living stars to pass through them. Or rather, are they not more like supplicating captives, enchained for centuries to the gates of our atmosphere and vainly demanding either freedom or hospitality? From its first to its last ray, the inter-tropical sun reveals to us these pale Bohemians who are paying such a high price to atone for their indiscreet visit among more settled and established people.
Comets are truly fantastic beings. Since the beginning of the solar system, they have passed through the perihelion by the millions. Our world in particular abounds in them, and yet more than half escape our view, even with the use of a telescope. How many of these nomads have taken up residence with us? . . . Three . . . and even then it can still be said that they are only camping out. One of these days they will up stakes and disappear off to rejoin their innumerable tribes scattered across the spaces we can only imagine. In truth, it is of little importance whether they do so by way of ellipses, parabolas or hyperbolas.
After all, they are harmless and graceful creatures that often play the leading role on the most beautiful of starry nights. If they happen to get caught like fools in a trap, astronomy gets caught there with them – and it has a still harder time releasing itself. They are a veritable nightmare for science. What a contrast with the celestial bodies! These are the two extremes of an antagonism, of overwhelming masses and of imponderables; the excess of the gigantic and the excess of nothing.
And yet, when it comes to this nothing, Laplace speaks of condensation and vaporisation, as if what is at issue were a gas like any other. He affirms that eventually the comets completely dissipate in the heat of the perihelion. But what happens to them after this volatilisation? The author does not say, and he probably does not worry about this very much either. As soon as it is no longer a matter of geometry, he proceeds in summary fashion, with few scruples. However ethereal the sublimation of these blaze-tailed celestial bodies may be, it nonetheless still consists of matter. What will its fate be? No doubt the cold will lead it to readopt its original form. So be it. It is part of the essence of a comet to reproduce ambulatory, diaphanous bodies. But according to Laplace and other authors these diaphanous bodies are identical to fixed nebulae.
Wait! Hold on now, stop right there! We should pause to check the meaning of these words. ‘Nebula’ [nébuleuse] is suspicious. It is a name that is attributed too easily, for it has three different meanings. It can denote: 1) a pale light that powerful telescopes break down into innumerable, densely packed stars; 2) a similar-looking pale light, dotted with one or several small bright points, and that does not allow itself to be resolved into stars; 3) the comets.
A meticulous comparison of these three categories is essential. The first one, the clusters of small stars, poses no difficulty at all – everyone agrees on this. The dispute only concerns the other two. According to Laplace, when nebulosities so profusely scattered across the universe undergo their first stage of condensation they form either comets or the nebulae that possess bright points, which are irreducible to stars and transform into solar systems. Laplace explains and describes this transformation in detail.
When it comes to comets, however, he simply presents them as small, wandering nebulae that he leaves undefined, making no attempt to differentiate them from those nebulae that are in the process of giving birth to a star. On the contrary, he insists on their close resemblance, which only allows them to be distinguished through the displacement of comets that have become visible in the light of the Sun’s rays. In a word, he takes irreducible nebulae from Herschel’s telescope and indiscriminately turns them either into planetary systems on the one hand or comets on the other. It is merely a question of orbits and of fixedness or irregularity in gravitation. Besides, since ‘the nebulae scattered across the universe’ all have the same origin, they must therefore have the same constitution.
How can such a great physicist conflate these glacial and empty glowings of borrowed light with the immense jets of ardent vapour that will one day become suns? If the comets were made of hydrogen this might make sense. One might then imagine that large masses of this gas, remaining outside of the star-nebulae, could float freely across the expanses where they act out gravity’s little play. These would still be made up of cold and dark gas, whereas the stellar–planetary cradles are in fact incandescent, so much so that the conflation of these two sorts of nebulae would still remain impossible. But even this provisional hypothesis is flawed. Compared with comets, hydrogen is like granite. There can be nothing in common between the nebulous matter of stellar systems and that of comets. One is force, light, weight and heat; the other is nullity and ice, empty and dark.
Laplace says the two kinds of nebulae are so similar that one can barely distinguish them. What! Volatilised nebulae are immeasurable distances apart; comets are almost within arm’s reach of each other. And yet he concludes from a false resemblance between two such profoundly different bodies that their composition is identical! But the comet is something infinitely small, and the nebula is almost a universe. Any comparison between such things is absurd.
Let us repeat once again that if a mass of hydrogen evaded both gravitational attraction and combustion during the volatile phase of nebulae and thereby escaped into free space and became comets, then these new celestial bodies would enter into the general composition of the universe. Moreover, they would play a formidable role. Powerless as a mass in a planetary collision, yet set ablaze by an encounter with air and contact with its oxygen, they would burn all organic bodies to death, both plants and animals. However, everyone agrees that hydrogen is to cometary substance what a block of marble would be to hydrogen itself.
Let us now imagine fragments of stellar clouds, wandering from system to system, like comets. These volatile clusters, when at the highest of temperatures, would pass around us not as thin fog, lifeless and motionless, but rather as a terrifying torrent of light and heat, one that would have soon cut short our polemics about them. The uncertainty about comets drags on. Debate and conjecture settle nothing. Certain points do appear to have been clarified, however. The unity of cometary matter is now beyond doubt. It is a simple body that has never shown any variation in any of its already numerous appearances. One constantly discovers the same elastic tenuousness, dilatable to the point of emptiness, and this absolute translucency that in no way hampers the faintest of lights from passing through it.
Comets are not composed of ether, gas, liquid, solid, or anything like that which makes up the celestial bodies. Rather, they are formed from an indefinable substance that appears to share none of the properties of known matter and does not exist separately from the solar rays that momentarily pull them out of nothingness, only to let them fall back into it. There is a fundamental separation between this sidereal enigma and the stellar systems that constitute the universe. They are two isolated modes of existence, two totally distinct categories of matter, with no other link than a disordered, indeed almost crazed, gravitation. The description of the world need not take them into account. They are nothing, they do nothing, and they have only one role – that of an enigma.
With its excessive dilatations at the perihelion and its icy contractions at the aphelion, this meteoric astral body resembles [représente] a certain giant from the One Thousand and One Nights that was bottled up by Solomon. When the chance arises, it slowly spreads forth from its prison in an immense cloud to take on a human form, before returning back to vapour and going back down the neck of the bottle, where it disappears once again. A comet is an ounce of fog that first expands to fill a billion cubic leagues, then shrinks to the size of a carafe.
Let us move on from playing these games, for they do not resolve the question: Are all the nebulae composed of clusters of adult stars, or do they contain the foetuses of stars in some of them, whether these be single or multiple? Only two judges can pronounce on this question: the telescope and spectral analysis. We demand of them strict impartiality, above all to guard against the occult influence of great scientific names. Indeed, it seems that spectrometry is tending towards results that agree with Laplace’s theory.
There is even less need to be lenient with regard to the illustrious mathematician’s possible errors, now that his theory can draw strengths from our current understanding of the solar system that even allow it to keep pace with the telescope and with spectral analysis, which is no small thing. It is the only rational and reasonable explanation of planetary mechanics, and certainly it will only succumb to irresistible arguments . . .
The Origin of Worlds
This theory does have a weakness, however, the same one as before – the question of origins, which is only evaded here through reticence. Unfortunately, to omit a question is not to resolve it. Laplace has skillfully sidestepped the problem, leaving it for others to solve, and by doing so he was able to develop his hypothesis, having cleared its path of this stumbling block.
Gravitation only partially explains the universe. The motion of celestial bodies obeys two forces: centripetal or gravitational force, which makes them fall or attracts them to each other; and centrifugal force, which pushes them forward in a straight line. The combination of these two forces results in the astral bodies’ more or less elliptical motion. If there were no centrifugal force, the Earth would fall into the Sun. If there were no centripetal force, it would break out of its orbit by following its tangent and would escape, continuing straight ahead.
The source of centripetal force is known: attraction, or gravitation. The origin of centrifugal force remains a mystery. Laplace left this difficulty to one side. According to his theory, the translatory motion – in other words, centrifugal force – originates in the rotation of the nebula. This hypothesis is no doubt correct, since it would be impossible to provide a more satisfactory account of the phenomena that take place in our planetary group. Nonetheless, we are still entitled to ask the illustrious geometer: What led the nebula to rotate? What was the source of the heat that first volatilised this gigantic mass and later condensed it into a sun surrounded by planets?
Heat! It seems that in space it is everywhere available for the taking. Yes, there is still heat at 270 degrees below zero. Is this what Laplace is alluding to when he says that ‘because of excessive heat, the Sun’s atmosphere originally stretched out beyond the orbits of all the planets’? Following Herschel, he notes the existence of a large number of nebulosities that are at first so diffuse that they are barely visible, and that, through a series of condensations, then turn into stars. And these stars are gigantic globes in full incandescence like the Sun, which would suggest a considerable amount of heat. Imagine what their temperature must have been when, having been reduced entirely to vapours, these enormous masses were then dilated to such a degree of volatilisation that they became a barely perceptible nebulosity!
These are the very nebulosities that Laplace presents as spread in profusion across the universe, and as giving birth to comets and stellar systems. This is an unacceptable assertion, as we have shown for cometary substance, which has nothing in common with that of nebulae-stars. If these substances were similar, then comets would always and everywhere be mixed with stellar matter to the point that they would simply become part of it. They would not then constantly follow their own course, separate from that of the other astral bodies, on account of their inconsistency, and of their vagabond habits, and of the absolute unity of substance that characterises them.
Laplace is perfectly right to say:
Thus, the progressive condensation of nebulous matter leads us to consider the possibility that a vast atmosphere once surrounded the Sun, and as we have seen we are also led to consider this possibility through examination of the phenomena of the solar system. Such a remarkable coincidence lends the idea that the Sun previously existed in this state a near certain probability.
On the other hand, there is nothing more mistaken than to conflate comets – these imponderable, icy futilities – with the stellar nebulae that are massive parts of nature, brought by volatilisation to maximum levels of temperature and brightness. That comets are an enigma is certainly disheartening, for so long as they remain inexplicable while everything else can be explained, they become an almost insurmountable obstacle to our understanding of the universe. But obstacles are not overcome with absurdities. We would do better to cut our losses and accord these impalpable things a special existence outside of matter proper, which can certainly act upon them through gravity, but without mixing with them or being subject to their influence. Although they are transient, unstable and short-lived, we know them to be a simple, single, invariable substance that is incapable of any form of modification, yet that can divide, reunite, form masses or be torn apart without ever changing. They therefore play no part in nature’s perpetual development or becoming [devenir]. We can take consolation in the inconsequential role played by this logogriph.
The question of origins is much more serious. Laplace reduces its importance – or, rather, he takes no account of it; he does not even deign or dare to address it. With his telescope, Herschel recorded numerous clusters of nebulous matter in space at varying degrees of diffusion – clusters that, through progressive cooling, end up as stars. The illustrious geometer describes and explains these transformations very well, but he has hardly a word to say about the origin of these nebulosities. Naturally, one therefore wonders: Where do these nebulae – that relative cold turns into suns and planets – come from?
According to certain theories, there may be chaotic matter in the open expanses of space that would, with the help of heat and attraction, agglomerate together to form planetary nebulae. But why, and since when, has this chaotic matter existed? And where does this extraordinary heat that facilitates such agglomeration come from? There are many questions that no one asks, which exempts us from answering them.
There is no need to point out that the chaotic matter that constitutes modern stars also constituted the ancient ones, from which it follows that the universe does not date back any further than the oldest stars existing today. We readily accord immense lifespans to these astral bodies, but we know nothing of their beginning except for the agglomeration of chaotic matter. As for their end – silence. What is farcical about all these theories is that they presuppose the existence of a sort of factory in imaginary space producing unlimited heat in order to provide indefinite volatilisation to all the nebulae and to every possible chaotic material.
Although Laplace is a very scrupulous geometer, he is not a particularly rigorous physicist. He claims that matter vaporises simply by virtue of excessive heat. Once one accepts the existence of a condensing nebula, one then admiringly follows his account of the successive birth of planets and of their satellites as a result of progressive stages of cooling. But this nebulous matter that comes from nowhere, attracted in every direction for reasons and by means that we cannot explain, also serves to cool our enthusiasm. It is hardly an acceptable way to treat one’s readers, by obliging them to rely on a hypothesis posited in the absence of any justification, and then to abandon them to it.
Heat and light do not accumulate in space at all – they dissipate there. Their source is eventually exhausted. All celestial bodies cool down through radiance. The stars, which begin as a tremendous incandescence, end up as a black congealment. Our seas were once oceans of flames; they are now nothing but water. When the Sun is extinguished, they will turn into a block of ice. Those cosmogonies that claim the world was created only yesterday may believe that the astral bodies have only just begun to burn. Even so, what next? The millions of stars that illuminate our nights have only a limited existence. They began in a blaze of fire; they will end in cold and darkness.
Can one simply say: ‘This will at least endure longer than us? Let us take it as it is. Carpe diem. What does it matter what came before! What does it matter what will follow? Avant et après nous le déluge! [Before and after us, the Flood!].’ No. The enigma of the universe continuously confronts our every thought. The human mind seeks to decipher it at all costs. Laplace was on the right track when he wrote the following words:
Viewed from the Sun, the Moon appears to follow a series of epicycloids whose centres lie on the circumference of the terrestrial orbit. Similarly, the Earth follows a series of epicycloids whose centres lie on the curve the Sun follows around the centre of gravity of the group of stars to which it belongs. Finally, the Sun itself follows a series of epicycloids whose centres lie on the curve followed by the centre of the group around that of the universe.
‘Of the universe’! That is going a bit far. This so-called centre of the universe and the immense cortège that gravitates around it is no more than an imperceptible point in the expanse of space. Laplace was nonetheless on the path that led to the truth. Indeed, he almost touched upon the key to the whole enigma. But this phrase, ‘of the universe’, proves that he had touched upon it without seeing it – or without looking at it, at least. He was an ultra- mathematician. He believed to his very core in an unalterable harmony and solidity of celestial mechanics. It may be solid, very solid in fact. Yet one must distinguish between the universe and a clock.
When a clock goes off time, one resets it. When it breaks, one fixes it. When it no longer works, one replaces it. But who can repair or replace celestial bodies? Do these flaming globes, these truly splendid representatives of matter, enjoy the privilege of perennial existence? No. Matter is eternal only in its elements and as a whole. All of its forms, be they humble or sublime, are transitory and perishable. Astral bodies are born, they shine, and they die. After lingering for perhaps thousands of centuries in their vanished splendour, they leave nothing but floating tombs to the laws of gravity. How many billions of these icy cadavers must be crawling along like this in the darkness of space, awaiting the hour of destruction, which will also be that of resurrection!
For all deceased forms of matter come back to life, whatever their condition. If the night of the grave is long for these finite astral bodies, there eventually comes a moment when their flame lights up again like lightning. On the surface of planets, beneath solar rays, a form that dies quickly disintegrates in order to reconstruct its elements into a new form. The metamorphoses follow one another without interruption. But when a sun dies out and turns to ice, who will provide it with heat and light once again? It can only be reborn as a sun. It gives life to a myriad of diverse beings. It can only hand it down to its sons through marriage. Under what guise could the nuptials and births of these luminous giants take place?
When, after millions of centuries, one of these immense whirlpools of stars – stars that were born, revolved and died together – grows to cover the regions of space that lie open before it, its frontiers collide with other extinguished whirlpools coming its way. A furious mêlée then begins that will last for countless years on a battlefield that stretches across billions and billions of leagues. This part of the universe is then reduced to little more than a vast atmosphere of flames, relentlessly crossed by the cataclysm’s lightning bolts that instantly volatilise both stars and planets.
At no point does this pandemonium disobey the laws of nature. The successive impacts reduce the solid masses to a vaporous state that is immediately seized by gravitation, which groups them into nebulae that are spinning on themselves as a result of the impact, and hurls them onto a regular orbit around new centres. Through their telescopes, distant observers are then able to catch a glimpse of the theatre of these great revolutions, which appear as a pale glimmer mixed with more luminous points. The glimmer is nothing more than a spot; but this spot is a mass of globes coming back to life.
To begin with, each of these newborn stars will live its infancy in isolation, as a thick, tumultuous cloud. Becoming calmer with time, the young astral body will gradually release from its womb a large family that will soon cool off through isolation, and will thereafter only survive through paternal warmth. The new sun will be the sole representative of such warmth for each world, which will know it alone, never catching sight of its other children. Such is our planetary system. And the planet we inhabit is one of the youngest daughters, followed by only one sister, Venus, and by a much younger brother, Mercury, the last to have hatched from the nest.
Are worlds really reborn in this way? I do not know. The dead legions that collide in order to come back to life are perhaps less numerous, the field of resurrection perhaps less vast. But it is certainly only a question of numbers and distances, not of the means or the process itself. As things stand we do not understand these encounters well enough to determine whether they take place simply between two stellar groups; or whether they occur between two systems where each star, along with its cortège of satellites, already only plays the role of a planet; or whether the collision is between two centres where the encounter is with nothing more than a modest satellite; or, finally, whether it is between two spheres [foyers] that represent a whole corner of the universe. The only legitimate assertion is as follows.
Matter cannot diminish or increase by so much as a single atom. The stars are nothing more than ephemeral flames. Thus, once extinguished, if they were not reignited, night and death would take hold of the whole universe in due course. And how could they reignite and light up again, if not through motion converted into heat in huge proportions – that is, through a collision with other extinguished stars that volatilises them and lends them a new existence? One should not object that motion’s conversion into heat would annihilate it, thereby immobilising the globes. Motion is nothing more than the result of attraction, and attraction, as the permanent property of all bodies, is imperishable. Indeed, motion would suddenly be reborn as a result of the shock itself. It may go off in new directions, but it will still have the same cause: gravity.
Would you say that these upheavals were an attack on the laws of gravitation? You have no idea, and nor do I. Our only option is to rely on what we can know by analogy. And analogy replies: ‘For centuries, meteorites have fallen upon our globe by the millions and, without a doubt, upon the planets of all the stellar systems. This would represent a grave breach of the law of attraction, as you understand it. In fact, it is a form of attraction that you are unfamiliar with – or, rather, one that you disdain, because it applies to asteroids but not to astral bodies. After orbiting their planet for thousands of years in accordance with all its laws, one fine day they penetrated into its atmosphere in violation of the law [of gravity], converting motion into heat through their fusion or their volatilisation, as they encounter friction in the air. What happens to what is small can and must happen to what is large. Bring gravitation before the tribunal of the Observatory, on charges of having maliciously and illegitimately allowed to fall down to Earth those aerolites whose travels through empty space it was meant to sustain.’
Yes, gravitation has allowed them to fall, and allows them and will continue to allow them to fall, just as it has knocked, does knock and will knock old planets and old stars against one another, even those old defunct stars making their lugubrious way through their old cemetery. The deceased then explode like fireworks, and new torches shine forth to illuminate the world. If you disagree with this interpretation, find a better one. But be careful. The stars last only so long, and together with their planets they comprise all matter. If you do not revive them one way or another, the universe is finished. In any case, we will carry out our demonstration in every key, major and minor, without fear of repeating ourselves. The subject is worth the effort. Whether or not we understand how the universe is sustained is not a matter of indifference.
Until it is proved otherwise, let us say then that the astral bodies are extinguished as a result of old age, and ignite again through some sort of impact. Such is the method by which sidereal entities convert matter. By what other process could they both obey the law common to all change and escape eternal immobilisation? Laplace says that: ‘In space there are dark bodies that are as considerable, and perhaps just as numerous, as the stars.’ These bodies are simply extinguished stars. Are they condemned to a cadaverous perpetuity? Will all the living ones, without exception, join them forever? How can these vacancies be filled?
The rather vague origin Laplace himself assigns to stellar nebulae seems somewhat unlikely. It would be an aggregation of nebulosities, of volatilised, cosmic clouds – an aggregation incessantly formed in space. But how? Space is everywhere just as we see it: cold and dark. The stellar systems are enormous masses of material. Where do they come from? From nothing? The existence of such improvised nebulosities is too hard to swallow.
Likewise, the notion of chaotic matter should not have reappeared in the nineteenth century. There has never been and there never will be a shadow of chaos anywhere. The organisation of the universe is eternal. It has never varied by even a hair’s breadth, nor has it taken a second’s respite. There is no chaos, not even on the battlefields where billions of stars collide with one another and blaze for centuries upon centuries in order to refashion living systems from dead ones. The law of attraction presides over these radical transformations just as rigorously as it does over the most peaceful movements of the moon.
Such cataclysms are rare in all the cantons of the universe, since the number of births cannot exceed the number of deaths in the civil registry of infinity, and its inhabitants enjoy very long lives. The open expanse before them is more than enough for their existence, and the hour of their death comes well before they have traversed the whole of it. The infinite is certainly rich in both time and space. It distributes a just and large proportion of both to its people. We do not know exactly how much time is granted, but we can get some idea of the space by measuring the distance of the stars, our neighbours.
The minimum distance separating us is around 10,000 billion leagues – a veritable abyss. Is that not a magnificent stretch, and spacious enough to allow us to advance in complete safety? Our sun’s flanks are covered. Its sphere of influence must no doubt extend to that of the nearest attractions. There are no neutral fields where gravitation is concerned. On this point we lack sufficient data. We are familiar with our own surroundings. It would be interesting to establish those of these luminous spheres whose zones of attraction are adjoining ours, and to arrange them around it, just as one stacks a cannon ball among other cannon balls. Our domain within the universe could then be surveyed and registered. This is impossible, however, otherwise it would have already been done. Unfortunately we are in no position to go and measure parallaxes from Jupiter or Saturn.
Our Sun is advancing; its rotational movement proves this beyond doubt. It circulates in concert with thousands, perhaps millions of stars that surround us and belong to our army. It has been travelling for centuries, though we do not know either its past, present or future itinerary. The history of humanity already dates back 6,000 years. Even during those remote times astronomical observations were already being carried out in Egypt. Apart from a movement in the zodiacal constellations as a result of the precession of equinoxes, there has been no recorded change in the appearance of the skies. In 6,000 years, our system might have been able to advance in one direction or another.
Even for a mediocre walker like our globe, 6,000 years is one-fifth of the way to Sirius. Yet there is no indication whatsoever that it has moved. Any rapprochement with the constellation of Hercules remains a mere hypothesis. We are frozen in place, and so are the stars. And yet, we are travelling with them towards the same end. They are our contemporaries, our fellow travellers, hence their apparent immobility; we are advancing together. The road will be long, and it will take a long time to reach old age, death, and finally resurrection. But from the perspective of the infinite even this road is but a tiny point, and this time amounts to not even one-thousandth of a second. Eternity does not distinguish between a star and something ephemeral. What are these billions of suns that follow upon one another across time and space? A shower of sparks. This rain fertilises the universe.
This is why the renewal of worlds through the collision and volatilisation of deceased stars takes place every minute across the fields of infinity.
These gigantic conflagrations are both innumerable and rare, depending on whether we consider the whole universe or only one of its regions. What other process could replace them, that might preserve the general life of the universe? The nebulae-comets are ghosts; the stellar nebulosities, brought together in some unknown way, are chimeras. There is nothing in the expanse except astral bodies small and large, infant, adult and dead, and their entire existence unfolds before us. The infants are volatilised nebulae; the adults are the stars and their planets; the dead are their dark cadavers.
Heat, light and movement are forces of matter, and not matter itself. Attraction, which launches so many billions of globes off into their incessant race, cannot add a single atom to it. Nevertheless it is the great, fecund force, the inexhaustible force that no prodigality can impoverish, since it is the permanent and common property of bodies. Attraction is what casts the whole celestial machinery into motion and sets the worlds off on their endless peregrinations. It is rich enough to provide the revitalisation of astral bodies with the motion that is converted into heat through a collision.
These encounters between sidereal cadavers which collide with one another until they result in a resurrection may be seen as a disturbance to the established order. A disturbance! But what would happen if the old, dead suns, with their string of defunct planets, were to continue their mortal procession indefinitely, extending it every night with new funerals? All these sources of light and life shining in the firmament would be extinguished one after the other, like lanterns in an illumination. Eternal night would descend upon the universe.
The initial high temperatures of matter can have no other source than motion – the permanent force from which all others derive. The lighting up of a sun, that sublime undertaking, is solely the work of this reigning force. It can have no other possible origin. Gravitation alone renews the worlds, just as it directs and maintains them through motion. This is a truth that we can grasp almost as much from instinct as from reasoning and experience.
Experience unfolds before our eyes every day; it is up to us to observe and to draw conclusions. What is an aerolite that ignites, volatilises and vanishes as it cuts through the air, if not the miniature image of a sun’s creation through motion that is converted into heat? Is this corpuscle, which has been diverted from its regular course to sweep through the atmosphere, not also a form of disorder? What was normal about that? And when these clouds of asteroids are moving at planetary speeds along their orbit’s track, why is only one of them diverted, and not all of them? Where is the good order in all of this?
At every point discord incessantly shatters this supposed harmony – a harmony that would otherwise stagnate and, soon after, decompose. The laws of gravity have millions of unexpected consequences; they produce a shooting star here, a sun-star there. Why banish them from the general harmony? These accidents displease, and yet we are born from them! They are the antagonists of death, the always-open sources of universal life. It is only through a permanent failing of its good order that gravitation is able to reconstruct and repopulate the globes. On its own, the good order that we vaunt would let them disappear into nothingness.
The universe is eternal, but the astral bodies are perishable. And since they constitute all matter, each one of them has already passed through billions of existences. Through the resurrecting collisions that it sets in motion, gravitation incessantly divides, combines and shapes them to the point that every one of them is a compound of the dust of all the others. Every inch of the ground we walk upon has been a part of the entire universe. But it is nothing more than a silent witness, who never speaks of what it has seen in Eternity.
In revealing the presence of a certain number of simple bodies in the stars, spectral analysis has only told part of the truth. It will gradually tell the rest through advances in experimentation. Two important remarks should be made here. The densities of our planets are different. But that of the Sun is the precise proportional encapsulation of these densities, and because of this it remains the faithful representative of the primitive nebula. This phenomenon is no doubt the same in all star systems. When the astral bodies are volatilised through a sidereal encounter, all of the substances merge together into a gaseous mass that arises from the impact. The nebula’s process of organisation then slowly separates them out from one another, according to the laws of gravity.
In each stellar system, the densities must therefore be layered or spread out in intervals according to the same order, such that all the planets are alike – not as if they actually belong to the same sun, but in such a way that their differences of rank apply across all groups. Indeed, as a result they possess identical conditions of heat, light and density. As for the stars, their composition is certainly similar, for they reproduce, billions of times over, the combinations that are produced by the impacts and volatilisations. The planets, by contrast, result from the processes of sorting and selection that are carried out according to the difference and classification of densities. Needless to say, the mixture of stellar and planetary elements thus prepared by infinity is far more comprehensive and fundamental than that of the most carefully prepared drugs, ground to the finest powder by generations of pharmacists, for a hundred years.
But I hear voices crying out: ‘On what basis can one presuppose the existence of this perpetual torment, which consumes the astral bodies on the pretext of recasting them, and which offers such a strange refutation of gravitation’s regularity? Where is the proof of these collisions and their resurrectionary conflagrations? Men have always admired the imposing majesty of celestial movements, and yet we now want to replace such a beautiful order with permanent disorder! Who has ever seen, anywhere, the slightest symptom of such disarray?
Astronomers are unanimous in proclaiming the invariability of the phenomena of attraction. Everyone agrees that it is an absolute guarantee of stability and security, but here comes another theory that seeks to establish it as an instrument of cataclysms. Centuries of experience and universal testimony vigorously reject such hallucinations.
Almost all the changes in the stars that have been observed until now are nothing more than periodic irregularities, and they therefore exclude the idea of catastrophe. The star in the Cassiopeia constellation in 1572, like that of Kepler in 1604, shone only as temporary flashes of light. This is incompatible with the volatilisation hypothesis. The universe appears to be very tranquil, quietly following its path. Humanity has been observing the spectacle of the sky for 5,000 to 6,000 years. It has not noted any serious tumult there. The comets have only ever caused fear, not harm. Six thousand years is a considerable length of time! The telescope’s range is quite considerable, too. Neither the expanses of time or space have revealed anything. Such gigantic upheavals are nothing but dreams.’
Now, it is true that we have not seen anything, but this is only because we cannot see anything. Although they occur frequently across the expanse of space, nowhere are such scenes performed in front of an audience. The observations carried out on the luminous astral bodies concern only the stars of our own celestial province, the contemporaries and companions of our Sun, which therefore share its same destiny. One cannot infer from the prevailing calm of our surroundings that there is monotonous tranquillity across the rest of the universe. There are no witnesses to the renewing conflagrations. If they are ever glimpsed, it is only at the end of a telescope, where they appear as an almost imperceptible faint light. Telescopes reveal thou- sands of them in this way. The day that our province itself becomes the theatre for such dramas once again, its inhabitants will have long since moved elsewhere.
The incidents of Cassiopeia in 1572 and Kepler’s star in 1604 are merely secondary phenomena. One could certainly attribute them to an eruption of hydrogen or to the fall of a comet, which might have crashed into the star like a glass of oil or alcohol in a furnace, causing an ephemeral burst of flames. The latter case would imply that the comets are made of a combustible gas. But who could possibly know this, and what does it matter? Newton thought that they nourished and sustained the Sun. Should we generalise this hypothesis, and consider these wandering wisps [perruques vagabondes] as the regular nourishment of the stars? What meagre, ordinary fare! It is surely incapable of igniting or relighting these torches of the world.
The problem still remains, then, of how the luminous astral bodies are born and die. Who could have set them alight? And who replaces them once they cease to shine? Not one atom of matter can be created, and if the deceased stars do not relight then the universe dies out. I defy anyone to find a way round this alternative: ‘Either the resurrection of the stars, or universal death . . .’ This is the third time I have repeated the point. The sidereal world is alive, very much alive, and since within life as a whole the lifespan of each star lasts no longer than a flash of lightning, all the astral bodies have already ended and begun anew billions and billions of times. I have already explained how. And yet the idea of collisions between globes travelling back and forth across space with thunderous violence is considered quite extraordinary. There is nothing extraordinary here other than this very incredulity, for these globes rush straight at one another, and only narrowly avoid colliding with each other. But they cannot always dodge each other. Those who seek, find.
On the basis of the preceding assumptions, we are entitled to conclude that there is a unity in the composition of the universe, which is not to say that there is a ‘unity in its substance’. The sixty-four (or let us estimate one hundred) kinds of simple body that make up our Earth likewise form the basis of all the globes without distinction – except the comets, which remain an indecipherable and unimportant myth, and which are not globes in any case. Nature therefore has very little variety in its materials. It certainly knows how to put them to good use. Indeed, to see it take two simple bodies, hydrogen and oxygen, and alternately make fire, water and ice, is truly astounding. Chemistry is far from knowing everything, but it knows a great deal about this. Despite so much power, however, one hundred elements are not a lot to work with in the workshop of infinity. We are coming now to the crucial point.
All celestial bodies, without exception, have the same origin: the blaze caused by impacts. Each star is a solar system resulting from a nebula that has been volatilised in a collision. It is the centre of a group of planets that are already formed or in the process of forming. The role of the star is simple: it is a sphere and source of light and heat that ignites, shines, and then goes out. Consolidated and strengthened through cooling, the planets alone have the privilege of organic life, which takes its source from the heat and light of their star and dies with it. The composition and mechanism of all the astral bodies is identical. Only the volume, form and density vary. The entire universe is set up, operates and lives according to this plan [plan]. Nothing could be more uniform.
Excerpted from The Blanqui Reader: Political Writings, 1830–1880 by Louis Auguste Blanqui. Edited by Peter Hallward and Philippe Le Goff. Translated by Mitchell Abidor, Peter Hallward, and Philippe Le Goff. Published June 2018 by Verso. Excerpted with permission of the publisher.
 Cf. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, ed. and trans. Roger Ariew (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004), 58.
 We follow Anderson’s elegant formulation here.
 Blanqui’s rather eccentric and enthusiastic speculations about the nature of comets in the following pages should be read in context (and alongside his somewhat comparable conception of the general relation between material reality and thought). As one survey notes, ‘the nineteenth century maintained an erratically dualistic attitude towards comets and meteors’; traditionally associated with obscure omens and portents of doom, many amateur astronomers remained fascinated by comets’ apparently unpredictable orbits, their uncertain physical composition, and the mysterious nature of their combustion, despite the accumulation of less fanciful scientific knowledge over the course of the century. Roberta J. M. Olson and Jay M. Pasachoff, Fire in the Sky: Comets and Meteors, the Decisive Centuries, in British Art and Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 180.
 François Arago, Astronomie populaire (1855), II, 475 (Reference adopted from Chouraqui’s edition of Eternity by the Stars, 158n.10).
 Pierre-Simon Laplace, Exposition du système du monde, in Laplace, Œuvres complètes, 6th edn (Paris: Bachelier, 1835), VI, 140; cf. Laplace, The System of the World, trans. Henry Harte, 2 vols (Dublin: Longman, 1830), I, 205. For some details regarding Blanqui’s references to Laplace, see Chouraqui’s edition of Eternity by the Stars, 158–9.
 Laplace, Exposition du système du monde, 234; cf. Laplace, System of the World, II, 49.
 ‘Zodiacal light: a faint elongated ellipse of light extending along the zodiac on each side of the sun, visible (in the north temperate zone) chiefly after sunset in late winter and early spring, and before sunrise in autumn’ (OED).
 Partial citation of Laplace, Exposition du système du monde, 294; cf. Laplace, System of the World, II, 137–8.
 We have followed Anderson’s rendering here.
 Laplace, Exposition du système du monde, 482; cf. Laplace, System of the World, II, 336–7.
 Laplace, Exposition du système du monde, 483; cf. Laplace, System of the World, II, 338.
 Chouraqui notes that this is an approximate citation from the second edition of Laplace’s Exposition du système du monde (1798), 347–8, and that the passage does not appear in subsequent editions (Chouraqui, ed., Eternity by the Stars, 159n.22).
 We adopt Chouraqui’s concise rendering here.[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]