|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 |
ARLY in the morning Uncle Paul and his nephew climbed the
neighboring hill to see the sunrise. It was still quite
The only persons they met in passing through the
village were the milkmaid, on her way to town with butter
and milk, and the blacksmith hammering away at the red-hot
iron on his anvil, while the glow from the forge illumined
the darkness of the road.
Sheltered by a clump of juniper-trees, Uncle Paul and the three
children await the grand spectacle they have come to the top
of the hill to see. In the east the sky is getting lighter,
the stars turn pale and go out one by one. Flakes of rosy
cloud swim in a brilliant streak of light whence gradually
there rises a soft illumination. It reaches the zenith, and
the blue of day reappears with all its delicate
transparency. This cool morning light, this
half-  daylight that precedes the rising of the sun, is the aurora or
morning twilight. In the meantime a lark, the joy of the
fields, takes wing to the highest clouds, like a rocket, and
is the first to salute the awakening day. It mounts and
mounts, always singing, as if to get in front of the sun;
and with its enthusiastic songs it celebrates in the high
heavens the glory of the day-bringer. Listen: there is a
breath of wind in the foliage, which stirs and rustles; the
little birds are waking up and chirping; the ox, already led
to work in the fields, stops as if thinking, raises its
large eyes full of gentleness, and lows; everything becomes
animated, and, in its own language, renders thanks to the
Master of all things, who with His powerful hand brings us
back the sun.
And here it is: a bright thread of light bursts forth, and
the tops of the mountains are suddenly illumined. It is the
edge of the sun beginning to rise. The earth trembles before
the radiant apparition. The shining disc keeps rising: there
it is almost whole, now completely so, like a grindstone of
red-hot iron. The mist of the morning moderates its glare
and allows one to look it in the face; but soon no one could
endure its dazzling splendor. In the meantime its rays
inundate the plain; a gentle heat succeeds the keen
freshness of the night; the mists rise from the depths of
the valleys and are dissipated; the dew, gathered on the
leaves, becomes warm and evaporates; on all sides there is a
resumption of life, of the animation suspended during the
night. And all day, pursuing its course from east to west,
the sun moves on,
flood-  ing the earth with light and heat,
ripening the yellow harvest, giving perfume to the flowers,
taste to fruit, life to every creature.
Then Uncle Paul, in the shade of the juniper-trees, began
"What is the sun? Is it large, is it very far away? That, my
children, is what I should now like to teach you.
"To measure the distance from one point to another, you know
of only one means: that of laying off, as many times as it
will go, the unit of length, the meter, from one end to the
other of the distance to be measured. But science has
methods adapted to the measuring of distances that one
cannot travel in person; it tells us what must be done to
find the height of a tower or mountain, without going to the
top, without even approaching the base. They are methods of
the same kind as are employed to calculate the distance that
separates us from the sun. The result of the astronomer's
calculations is that we are distant from the sun 38 millions
of leagues of 4000 meters each. This distance is equivalent
to 3800 times the circumference of the earth. I told you
that, to make the tour of the terrestrial globe, a man, a
good walker, capable of walking ten leagues a day, would
take about three years. He would need, then, nearly twelve
thousand years to go from the earth to the sun, supposing
that the journey were possible. The longest human life is
incomparably too short for a journey of this length ever to
be accomplished by one person; and a hundred generations of
a hundred years each,
succeed-  ing one another on the journey
and uniting their efforts, would not even be enough."
"And a locomotive," asked Jules, "how long would it take to
get over that distance?"
"Do you remember how fast it goes?"
"I saw it myself the day we took the trip with you. If one
looks out, the road seems to fly back so fast it frightens
you and makes you dizzy."
"The locomotive that drew us went at the rate of about ten
leagues an hour. Let us suppose a locomotive that never
stops and that goes still faster, or fifteen leagues an
hour. Rushing at that speed, the engine would go from one
end of France to the other in less than a day; and yet, to
cover the distance from the earth to the sun, it would take
more than three centuries. For such a journey, the fastest
engine ever made by the hand of man is hardly more than a
sluggish snail ambitious to make the tour of the world."
"And I who thought, not long ago," said Emile, "that by
climbing to the roof and with the aid of a long reed I could
touch the sun!"
"To one who trusts to appearances the sun is only a dazzling
disc, at the most as large as a grindstone."
"That is what I said yesterday," observed Jules. "But, as it
is so far away, it might well be as large as a millstone."
"In the first place, the sun is not flat like a grindstone;
it has, like the earth, the shape of a ball. Furthermore, it
is much larger than a grindstone, or even than a millstone.
 "Objects seem to us small in proportion to their distance
from us, until finally they become invisible. A high
mountain seen from afar seems only a moderate-sized hill;
the cross that surmounts a steeple, seen from below, looks
very small despite its very large dimensions. It is the same
with the sun: it looks so small only because it is very far
off; and as the distance is prodigious, its size must be
excessive; if not, instead of looking to us like a dazzling
grindstone, it would cease to be visible to us.
"You found the terrestrial globe enormous; and, despite my
comparisons, your imagination, I am sure, has not been able
to picture things properly. How will it be with the sun,
which is one million four hundred thousand times as large as
the earth! If we suppose the sun hollow like a spherical
box, to fill it would take one million four hundred thousand
balls the size of the earth.
"Let us try another comparison. To fill the measure of
capacity called the liter, it takes about 10,000 grains of
wheat. It would take, then, 100,000 to fill 10 liters or
one decaliter, and 1,400,000 to fill 14 decaliters. Well,
suppose in one pile 14 decaliters of wheat, and beside it
one solitary grain of wheat. For the respective sizes, this
isolated grain represents the earth; the pile of 14
decaliters represents the sun."
"How wrong we were!" Claire exclaimed. "This little shining
disc, to which, for fear of exaggeration, we should have
hesitated to assign the dimensions of a millwheel, is a
globe so big that in
com-  parison with its gigantic size the
earth is as nothing."
"Oh, God in heaven!" cried Jules.
"Yes, my friend, you may well say, 'God in heaven,' for the
mind is bewildered at the thought of this inconceivable
mass. Say: God in heaven! how great You are, You who out of
nothing have created the sun and the earth, and hold them
both in the shadow of Your hand!
"I have not finished, my dear children. One day, in speaking
to you of lightning and thunder, I told you that light moves
with excessive rapidity. In fact, to come to us from the
sun, to cover the distance that a locomotive at its highest
speed would take three hundred years to cover, a ray of
light needs only the half of a quarter of an hour, or about
eight minutes. Now listen to this. Astronomy teaches us that
each star, small as it may appear from here, is itself a sun
comparable in size to ours; it tells us that these suns, of
which we with the naked eye can perceive only a very small
part, are so numerous that it is impossible to count them;
it tells us that their distance is so great that, to come to
us from the nearest star, light, which travels so fast, as I
have just told you, takes nearly four years; to reach us
from others that are by no means the most distant it takes
whole centuries. After that, if you can, estimate the
distance that separates us from those far-off suns; think
also of their number and size. But no, do not try: the
intellect is overwhelmed by these immensities in which is
revealed all the majesty
 of God's handiwork. Do not try, it
would be in vain; but let arise from your heart the burst of
admiration that you cannot suppress, and bless God, whose
infinite power has scattered suns through the boundless
regions of celestial space."
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