33: Molecules and Lightbulbs

Cyrano’s young host is in full form as he continues the after-dinner seminars on sensation. Having explained the way sight works, he moves on to the senses of hearing, touch, taste and smell. As the worms in the light globes begin to grow dim, the Sun-being brings in a big surprise...

“It is no more difficult to understand the way hearing works. To keep things brief, let’s consider it only in terms of music. A lute is stroked by the hands of a master player. You will ask me how I can hear something that is so far away that I cannot see it. Do sponges come out of my ears to drink up the music and bring it to me? Or does the player create in my head another little player who has his own little lute and is ordered to play the same melodies? No. The miracle is due to the plucked cord’s striking the little bodies that air is composed of. It sends them to my brain, penetrating it gently with these tiny corporeal bodies.

“If the cord is taut, the sound is high-pitched, because it pushes against the atoms more vigorously. When they reach the brain, they give the mind something with which to make a picture. If there is too little stimulation and our memory has not yet completed its image, we are obliged to repeat the same sound. Thus, it is able to take enough of the matter that provides it with, for example, the measures of a saraband to complete the idea of the saraband.

“But that operation is quite ordinary. The amazing thing is that music moves us to joy, anger, pity, meditation and sorrow. That happens, I think, when the movement imparted to these little bodies encounters within us other little bodies that move in the same way or that have shapes that make them susceptible to the same kind of movement. The impinging bodies then excite the ones within to move in like manner. Thus, when a stirring melody meets the fire of our blood that is inclined to the same motion, it animates this fire to express itself, and we call it the ardor of courage.

“If the sound is gentler and is able to arouse only a lesser but livelier emotion because the matter is more volatile as it moves along the nerves, membranes and humors of our flesh, it arouses the emotion we call joy. The same thing happens with the arousal of other passions according to the degree of energy of the little bodies that impact on us, according to the movement they receive when they meet other bodies in motion, and according to what they set in motion within us. So much for hearing.

“It is no more difficult to demonstrate how the sense of touch works. These little bodies are emitted whenever we touch something. More of them are emitted the more we express them from the objects we handle, like water when we squeeze a sponge. Hard objects thus communicate their solidity to our brain; supple ones, their softness; rough ones, their roughness; hot ones, their heat; and cold ones, their coolness. If that were not the case, we would not be able to discern touch by hands worn with work, because the skin would be too thick, too non-porous, and too insensitive; only with difficulty could it transmit to us these exhalations of matter.

“You may wish to know what is the seat of the sense of touch. I think it is spread over the entire surface of our body, since it is transmitted by the nerves, which make an imperceptible and continuous network in our skin. However, I think that we sense touch sooner the closer the touch is to our head. That can be tested experimentally. When we close our eyes and feel something with our hands, we know immediately what it is. On the other hand, if we feel something with our foot, we have a hard time recognizing it. The reason is that our skin is covered with little holes, and our nerves are made of matter that is no more compact than they. A lot of these little atoms are lost on the way to the brain through the small holes in the texture of the nerves.

“I have only to show, now, that smell and taste work by means of these same little bodies. Tell me, when I taste a fruit, is it not by the moisture in my mouth when I eat it? You will admit that a pear has components that, when dissolved, separate into little bodies that necessarily impinge upon our palate very differently from those of a plum. In like manner, the wound caused by a lance thrust through my body is not the same as what I suffer from a gunshot wound, and a ball from a pistol causes me a kind of pain different from that inflicted by the square steel point of a crossbow arrow.

“I have nothing to say about the sense of smell, because your own philosophers admit it is accomplished by the continual emission of little bodies that strike our noses as they evaporate from a surface.

“I can explain to you by this principle the creation, harmony and influence of heavenly bodies and the changeless variety of atmospheric phenomena.”

He was about to continue, but at that moment our elderly host returned, and our philosopher thought it might be time to retire. The old man brought crystals full of glowing worms to give light to the room; but these little fiery insects lose a lot of their light unless they are freshly collected, and since they were ten days old, they shone hardly at all.

My familiar spirit did not wait, lest the company be inconvenienced. He went up to his room and returned immediately with two globes of fire so bright that everyone was surprised they did not burn his fingers.

“These incombustible torches will serve us better than your worm globes,” he said. They are rays of sunlight from which I have removed the heat. Otherwise, the corrosive quality of its fire would have dazzled and harmed your sight. I have caught the sunlight and enclosed it in these transparent globes I’m holding. You should not be overly amazed at that, because it is no more difficult for me, who was born on the Sun, to condense the rays that are the dust of that world, than it is for you to sweep up dust or tiny particles from the earth of this world.”

When we had finished praising this child of the Sun, it was getting late. The young host sent his father to escort the two philosophers back home, with a dozen worm globes tied to his four feet. The rest of us — the young host, my tutor and I — took to our beds as directed by the physiognomist.

You, Cyrano and the Sun-being decide that a field trip might be fun. The three of you hop into your time machine, and you set the dial for about minus 2,500 years; you're going to spend the day with Leucippus and Democritus. Indeed, it’s a beautiful day in ancient Greece, and the five of you have a delightful picnic together discussing atomic theory.

At one point, you’re asked, “How old do your philosophers calculate the universe is?” You start to answer, “Oh, about 14...” And then you’re stumped. You look helplessly at the Sun-being and Cyrano, but they don’t know how to say “14 billion years” in ancient Greek, either. Cyrano understands quatorze milliards d’années but observes that it’s just an unimaginably big number that only cosmologists would use. Writing 1.4 x 1010 is nice and concise, but how are Leucippus and Democritus to understand it when they use the alphabet for quantitative, not positional notation? You’ll have to teach them a whole new way of doing arithmetic. That’s too much for one afternoon, and what kind of world would you return to if they discovered algebra and calculus while you were on your way home? Now you appreciate Cyrano’s task: his Moon-philosopher doesn’t need lessons in science so much as a whole new vocabulary.

The Moon-beings use a rough equivalent of 19th-century gaslight, and Cyrano himself lived in houses lighted by candles. You compliment the Sun-being on his concise explanation of his light sources, and you congratulate Cyrano on his latest invention: the electric lightbulb.

As the three of you bid farewell to your hosts and return to your own times, you have a recurrent, nagging question: what new concepts and inventions might a time-traveler from your future explain to you, and what words would he use?