Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/284

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
280
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

The stars send us not only that visible and gross light which strikes our bodily eyes, but from them also comes to us a light far more subtle, which illuminates our minds and whose effects I shall try to show you. You know what man was on the earth some thousands of years ago, and what he is to-day. Isolated amidst a nature where everything was a mystery to him, terrified at each unexpected manifestation of incomprehensible forces, he was incapable of seeing in the conduct of the universe anything but caprice; he attributed all phenomena to the action of a multitude of little genii, fantastic and exacting, and to act on the world he sought to conciliate them by means analogous to those employed to gain the good graces of a minister or a deputy. Even his failures did not enlighten him, any more than to-day a beggar refused is discouraged to the point of ceasing to beg.

To-day we no longer beg of nature; we command her, because we have discovered certain of her secrets and shall discover others each day. We command her in the name of laws she can not challenge because they are hers; these laws we do not madly ask her to change, we are the first to submit to them. Nature can only be governed by obeying her.

What a change must our souls have undergone to pass from the one state to the other! Does any one believe that, without the lessons of the stars, under the heavens perpetually overclouded that I have just supposed, they would have changed so quickly? Would the metamorphosis have been possible, or at least would it not have been much slower?

And first of all, astronomy it is which taught that there are laws. The Chaldeans, who were the first to observe the heavens with some attention, saw that this multitude of luminous points is not a confused crowd wandering at random, but rather a disciplined army. Doubtless the rules of this discipline escaped them, but the harmonious spectacle of the starry night sufficed to give them the impression of regularity, and that was in itself already a great thing. Besides, these rules were discerned by Hipparchus, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, one after another, and finally, it is needless to recall that Newton it was who enunciated the oldest, the most precise, the most simple, the most general of all natural laws.

And then, taught by this example, we have seen our little terrestrial world better and, under the apparent disorder, there also we have found again the harmony that the study of the heavens had revealed to us. It also is regular, it also obeys immutable laws, but they are more complicated, in apparent conflict one with another, and an eye untrained by other sights would have seen there only chaos and the reign of chance or caprice. If we had not known