3: The World Does So Turn

Cyrano has flown from France to Canada, where he receives the hospitality of Monsieur de Montmagny, the governor of New France. The governor has some questions for his guest; little does he suspect what he’s in for: an entirely new way of thinking...

In the evening, as I was going to bed, I saw him come into my room.

“I would not have come,” he told me, “and interrupt your rest unless I believed that someone who could travel nine hundred leagues in half a day could have done so without getting tired. You don’t know of the fine argument I’ve been having about you with our Jesuit priests?” he added. “They insist you are a magician. The best you can hope for from them is to pass only for an impostor.

“And actually, isn’t the motion you attribute to the earth a fine paradox? That’s why I’m not very convinced by what you say. Although you may have left Paris yesterday, you could have arrived in this country without the earth having turned beneath you. Since the sun pulled you upwards by means of your bottles, might it not have brought you here? According to Ptolemy, Tycho Brahe and modern philosophers it follows the same path as you say the earth does. And what evidence do you have to think that the sun does not move when we see that it does? And that the earth whirls around it so fast when we feel the ground motionless beneath our feet?”

“Monsieur,” I answered, “I will tell you why we are obliged to think so. First, it is commonly accepted that the sun is in the center of the universe, since all the bodies in nature need this primordial fire at the heart of the realm to meet their needs promptly. Also, the cause of procreation is placed equally in the middle of bodies, just as wise nature has placed the genitals in man, seeds in the center of apples and pits in the middle of other fruit. Likewise, the onion protects with the hundred skins that envelop it the precious seed from which ten million more will take their essence. The apple is a small universe in itself, and the sun is the seed, warmer than the other parts. That globe sheds the heat that preserves it. And the onion seed is the small sun of that little world; it warms and nourishes the vegetative salt of that body.

“Given that, I say that the earth needs the light, heat and influence of that great fire. It revolves about it to receive equally in all its parts the energy that preserves it. It would be as ridiculous to believe that that great luminous body revolved about a point that it has nothing to do with as to imagine that when we see a skylark being roasted that the fireplace revolves around it in order to cook it. Besides, if the sun had to do all that work, it would be like saying that medicine needed a patient, that the strong had to yield to the weak, the greater serve the lesser, and that, instead of a vessel sailing along the coast of a province, the province moved around the vessel.

“If you have trouble conceiving that such a heavy mass can move, please tell me: the stars and the sky you say are so solid, are they lighter? And we who know that the earth is round find it easy to draw conclusions about its movement from its shape. But why suppose the sky is round when you cannot know that it is? And if, of all shapes, it is not round, it certainly cannot move. I don’t begrudge you your excentrics, concentrics and epicycles, which you can explain only with confusion; I separate my system from them. Let us speak only of the natural causes of this motion.

“You are forced to resort to intelligences that move and govern your spheres. But I do not disturb the repose of the Sovereign Being, who no doubt created nature perfect and whose wisdom it is to have made it complete. Having made it perfect and complete for one purpose, he did not make it defective for another.

“I say that I find in the earth that which makes it move. And I say that the sun’s rays and influence strike the earth and make it turn as we make a globe spin by striking it with our hand. The water that evaporates continually from the side of the earth facing the sun is struck by the cold of the twilight region and falls back down again. It necessarily strikes the ground at an angle and thus makes the world turn.”

Monsieur de Montmagny’s questioning Cyrano — as well as the political reasons he gives for it — are quite realistic. The idea of the earth’s rotation was still controversial in the middle of the 17th century, and some parties felt they had an ideological interest in the earth’s standing still. Copernicus’ heliocentric model would seem to imply that since heavenly bodies revolve, they may also rotate. But Copernicus’ theory was not yet universally accepted.

Cyrano was no mathematical genius like Cardano or Descartes, nor was he a physicist like Torricelli and Pascal (all but Cardano were his contemporaries), but he understood what science was doing. Cyrano’s arguments and examples are sometimes comical and sometimes quaint, taken as they often are from kitchen and garden. However, the images of a fireplace turning about a roast and a coastline moving past a ship seem particularly striking: they parody and caution against an egocentric point of view. As a teacher, Cyrano would have been very fond of modern visual aids and multimedia. Cyrano’s examples may seem a little far-fetched, but they effectively underscore his organic concept of nature.

Cyrano also uses the word influence with reference to the earth’s revolving around the sun. It’s a catch-all word that basically means “something we don’t yet understand.” A century before Isaac Newton, Cyrano anticipates the need for the law of gravity, but neither he nor anyone else knows yet what it is or what to call it.