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The Story Book of Science by  Jean Henri Fabre


 

 

CHAPTER L

EMILE'S OBSERVATION

[227]

E
MILE'S turn came to tell what he had seen.

"When you made me a sign to be silent," said he, "it seemed to me as if the trees were walking. Those along the railroad were going very fast; farther away, the big poplars, ranged in long rows, were going with their heads waving as if saying good-by to us. Fields turned around, houses fled. But on looking closer I soon saw that we were moving and all the rest was motionless. How strange! You see something running that is really not moving at all."

"When we are comfortably seated in the railway car," his uncle replied, "without any effort on our part to go forward, how can we judge of our motion except by the position we occupy in relation to the objects that surround us? We are aware of the way we are going by the continual changing of the objects in sight, and not by any feeling of fatigue, since we do not move our legs. But the objects and people nearest to us and always before our eyes, our traveling companions and the furnishings of the car, remain for us in the same position. The left-hand neighbor is always at the left, the one in front is always in front. This apparent immobility of everything in the car makes us lose consciousness of [228] our own movement; then we think ourselves immobile and fancy we see flying in an opposite direction exterior objects, which are always changing as we look at them. Let the train stop, and immediately trees and houses cease moving, because we no longer have a shifting point of view. A simple carriage drawn by horses, a boat borne along by the current, lend themselves to this same curious illusion. Every time we ourselves are gently moved along, we tend, more or less, to lose consciousness of this movement, and surrounding objects, in reality immobile, seem to us to move in a contrary direction."

"Without being able to explain it to myself well," returned Emile, "I see that it is so. We move and we think we see the other things moving. The faster we go, the faster the other things seem to go."

"You hardly suspect, my little friends, that Emile's naïve observation leads us straight to one of the truths that science has had the most trouble in getting accepted, not on account of its difficulty, but because of an illusion that has always deceived most people.

"If men passed their whole life on a railroad, without ever getting out of the car, stopping, or changing speed, they would firmly believe trees and houses to be in motion. Except by profound reflection, of which not everybody is capable, how could it be otherwise, since none would have seen the testimony of their eyes contradicted by experience? Of those that have been convinced, one sharper than the others rises and says this: 'You imagine that [229] the mountains and houses move while you remain at rest. Well, it is just the opposite: we move and the mountains, houses, and trees stand still.' Do you think many would agree with him? Why! they would laugh at him, for each one sees, with his own eyes, mountains running, houses traveling. I tell you, my children, they would laugh at him."

"But, Uncle—" began Claire.

"There is no but.  It has been done. They have done worse than laugh; they have become red with anger. You would have been the first to laugh, my girl."

"I should laugh at somebody asserting that the car moves and not the houses and mountains?"

"Yes, for an error that accompanies us all through life and that every one shares, is not so easily removed from the mind."

"It is impossible!"

"It is so possible that you yourself, at every turn, make the mountain move and the car that carries us stand still."

"I do not understand."

"You make the round earth, the car that bears us through celestial space, stand still; and you give motion to the sun, the giant star that makes our earth seem as nothing by comparison. At least, you say the sun rises, pursues its course, sets, and begins its course again the next day. The enormous star moves, the humble earth tranquilly watches its motion."

"The sun does certainly seem to us," said Jules, "to rise at one side of the sky and set at the other, [230] to give us light by day. The moon does the same, and the stars too, to give us light at night."

"Listen then to this. I have read, I don't know where, of an eccentric person whose wrong-headedness could not reconcile him to simple methods. To attain the simplest result he would use means whose extravagance caused every one to laugh. One day, wishing to roast a lark, what do you think he took it into his head to do? I will give you ten, a hundred guesses. But, bah! you would never guess it. Just imagine! He constructed a complicated machine, with much wheelwork and many cords, pulleys, and counterpoises; and when it was started there was a variety of movement, back and forth, up and down. The noise of the springs and the grinding of the wheels biting on each other was enough to make one deaf. The house trembled with the fall of the counterpoises.

"But what was the machine for?" asked Claire. "Was it to turn the lark in front of the fire?"

"No, indeed; that would have been too simple. It was to turn the fire before the lark. The lighted firebrands, the hearth and chimney, dragged heavily by the enormous machine, all turned around the lark."

"Well, that beats all!" Jules ejaculated.

"You laugh, children, at this odd idea; and yet, like that eccentric man, you make the firebrands, hearth, the whole house turn around a little bird on the spit. The earth is the little bird; the house is the heavens, with their enormous, innumerable stars."

[231] "The sun isn't very big—at most, as large as a grindstone," said Jules. "The stars are only sparks. But the earth is so large and heavy!"

"What did you just say? the sun as large as a grindstone? the stars only little sparks? Ah, if you only knew! Let us begin with the earth."


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