Monday, 9 May 2016

Journeys to the Moon: The First Science Fiction

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John Wilkins was born in 1614, educated at Oxford, and became an Anglican minister. But his real passion was science, particularly astronomy. In 1638 he published Discovery of a New World … in the Moon, in which he described the current extent of knowledge as he had studied it, from Copernicus and Galileo to his own observations.
At the time, it was believed that the planets were smooth celestial balls which sat in rotating crystal spheres. Wilkins’ observations showed that the moon was a rocky world, just like Earth. Putting together the sum of various observations, he came to three conclusions: That there must be inhabitants on the moon, there may be inhabited worlds beyond, and it may be possible to create a conveyance to take man to the moon.

This is where scientific observation strays into science fiction. The last chapter of the book discusses various ways of travel to the moon, based on scientific understanding at the time, mixed with visionary speculation as to what might be possible. His suggestion was a sort of ship with wings.

Johannes_Kepler_1610
He was also influenced by Johannes Kepler's Somnium (The Dream, 1634), which contains a description of how the Earth might look when viewed from the Moon, and is considered the first serious scientific treatise on lunar astronomy. Both Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov have referred to it as the first work of science fiction.

Kepler began writing Somnium in 1608. In the book he recounts a dream he had of a witch and her son. The witch can summon demons and they take her to different places on the Earth in an instant. A demon takes her and her son to the island of Levania, which is “fifty thousand miles up in the Aether.” This is the moon. As they are shown around Levania there is a description of eclipses, the planets, and the separation of the moon into the dark side and the side that always faces Earth.

Thus, as science discovered more and more, this fed speculation about what else may be found and what may be possible in the future.

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