|The Story Book of Science|
|by Jean Henri Fabre|
|The wonders of plant and animal life told with rare literary charm by Uncle Paul in conversations with three children. Besides such stories as the ants' subterranean city, the spider's suspension bridge, and the caterpillars' processing, he unlocks the mystery behind thunder and lightning, clouds and rain, the year and its seasons, and volcanoes and earthquakes. Ages 9-12 |
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
 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
 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
"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
"The sun does certainly seem to us," said Jules, "to rise at
one side of the sky and set at the other,
 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
"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."
 "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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