20: That Monkey is a Spanish Physicist.

Cyrano has been brought up to speed on money and banking in an economy based on the poetry standard. He’s also tasted the ultimate in fast food. And now, for a real treat...

We continued walking as we spoke; that is, my bearer on four feet and I, astride him. I won’t go into any more detail about the adventures we encountered on our way. At last we came to the King’s residence. I was led directly to the palace. The nobles greeted me with more moderate attention than I had received from the people when passing through the streets. However, they arrived at the same conclusion: I must be the female of the Queen’s pet animal. That’s how my guide interpreted it for me; but he, himself, did not know what they were talking about and did not know what the Queen’s little animal was.

We soon found out, because after a while the King ordered that it be brought in. Half an hour later, a troop of monkeys came in wearing ruffs and trunk hose. Among them was a little man shaped almost like myself, because he walked on two legs. As soon as he saw me, he greeted me with a criado de nuestra mercede. I replied in much the same terms.

Alas, the assembly had no sooner seen us talking with one another than they considered their previous assumption correct. And this event soon led to another. Those in attendance who looked upon us most favorably insisted that our conversation was a grumbling that a natural instinct caused us to utter at the joy of being brought together.

The little man told me he was European, a native of Old Castile. He had found a way to have birds carry him to the Moon, where he fell into the hands of the Queen. She took him for a monkey, because in that country they happen to dress monkeys in Spanish-style clothing. Since that was what he was wearing when he arrived, what else was she to think?

“I’d say,” I replied, “they must have tried all sorts of clothes on the monkeys, and those were the most ridiculous they could find. That’s why they dress them like that and keep them around for amusement.”

“That does not do justice,” he said, “to the dignity of our nation: the world produces men only to serve us as slaves, and nature produces only things for us to laugh at.”

He then beseeched me to tell him how I had dared to venture to the Moon in my machine, which I had mentioned to him. I said because he had already taken the birds I had been planning to use. He smiled at the joke. About a quarter of an hour later, the King ordered the monkeys’ keepers to take us away, and he gave the express order that the Spaniard and I be made to sleep together in order to multiply our numbers in the kingdom.

The King’s orders were obeyed to the letter. I was very happy with that, because I enjoyed having someone to talk to in my confinement as an animal. One day, my male companion (they took me for the female) told me what had really caused him to wander about the world and finally to leave it for the Moon. He had not been able to find a single country where the imagination was free.

“You see,” he said, “unless you wear a mortarboard hat, a cap or a cassock, it doesn’t matter what fine things you say. If you go against the principles of the men of those cloths, you’re stupid, crazy or an atheist. In my country they wanted to bring me before the Inquisition because I had flabbergasted pedants by telling them to their faces that a vacuum does exist in nature and that I did not know of any material in the world that was heavier than another.”

I asked him what made him think that when so few others did.

“To come to that conclusion,” he answered, “you have to suppose that there is only one element. Although we see water, air and fire separately, we still never see them in so pure a state that they don’t mingle with each other. For example, when you look at fire, it’s not pure fire, it’s only very extended air. Air is only very dilated water; water is only liquid earth, and earth is only highly condensed water. When you look at matter very closely, you find that it is a unity, like an excellent actress who plays all sorts of characters in all sorts of costumes.

“Otherwise you’d have to say that there are as many elements as there are kinds of bodies. And if you ask me why fire burns and water freezes when they are both made of the same matter, I say that this matter acts out of sympathy with its disposition at the time at which it acts.

“Fire is only matter even more expanded than it is when it makes up air. By sympathetic action it tries to change whatever it touches into matter. The heat of coal is the most even fire and the most apt to penetrate a body; thus it slips into the pores of our body and makes us swell up at first, because it is a new matter that fills us. The heat makes us sweat; the sweat is expanded by heat, which is converted into vapor and becomes air. This air is expanded even more by the heat of antiperistasis, or nearby heat sources, and is called fire; and the matter falls to the ground when the moisture holding all its parts together evaporates.

“On the other hand, water differs from fire only by being more dense. It doesn’t burn us because its density causes by sympathetic action the compaction of the bodies it touches. The cold we feel is only the effect of our skin shrinking in contact with the earth or water that forces skin to resemble it. Hence those afflicted with dropsy turn into water all the food they eat. Hence bilious people change all the blood in their liver into bile. Supposing there is only one element, it is most certain that all bodies will be drawn toward the center of the earth, each according to its mass.”

Your workshop on flight and space travel was well received back in episode 6. Now you are invited to a small seminar. You hop into your trusty time machine, set the dial to minus 350 years and step out into a salon tastefully decorated in Louis XIII style. Quite up to date, really. You’d expected to meet in a Paris café but suddenly remember that the first one is due to open in about forty years, in 1689. This setting will do quite nicely.

In addition to your host, Cyrano, you find yourself à table with Blaise Pascal, René Descartes and Lucretius. Out of deference to the eldest guest everyone tries to speak Latin, but Lucretius has discovered French wine and politely waves the company back to French while he continues his research.

Descartes wants to know about the void. You tell him about interstellar space. He raises a skeptical eyebrow. Intimidated, you plunge ahead into virtual particles, dark matter and dark energy with a side note about theories of the ether. Descartes smiles broadly and murmurs something about plus ça change...

Pascal goes right to the heart of things: what about Creation? Cyrano rolls his eyes heavenward but politely says nothing and offers Lucretius a fresh bottle. At first you had felt amost undressed in the presence of gentlemen in long coats, but now, running a finger around your collar, you’re glad you can perspire freely. You explain how the steady-state theory has been superseded by the Big Bang.

“But what came before the Big Bang?” asks Pascal innocently. You explain that, just as there is nothing north of the North Pole, nothing comes “before” the Big Bang.

Pascal does not change expression; he’s been waiting for that. “No,” he answers, “you can’t go farther north. But you can go up or down.”

What now: parallel universes? The multiverse? Can’t we just get back to atoms and molecules? Maybe the equivalence of mass and energy, for dessert?