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2014 November The Moon

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14 Arguments for a World in the Moon


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On the 20th July 1969 the first humans set foot on the Moon. 331 years previously John Wilkins dreamt of this giant leap. Wilkins imagined the moon to be a world similar to our own which humans could travel to and trade with the inhabitants. What an extraordinary thing to imagine and believe the possibility of something for which the technology doesn’t even remotely exist. Wilkins wasn’t alone however and his book where he mused upon this topic, A Discovery of a New World in the Moon, was reprinted twice in its first year, 1638, and new editions appeared regularly over the next few decades. The Edward Worth library holds a copy of the 1684 edition, which is the subject of the November Book of the Month.

John Wilkins was the equivalent of a popular science writer in the 17th century. He rounded up theories of the best astronomy scholars and packaged them in an accessible manner. Although he warned it was hastily finished in a few short weeks it was well written and referenced. Notably, he wrote in vernacular English rather than Latin. A Discovery of a New World in the Moon was Wilkins’ first book but even at a youthful 24 years of age his interest in the accessibility of language was evident. In 1668 he published An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language – his own framework for a universal language to bridge the cultural divides across Europe as Latin began to decline. His wished to spread the enthusiasm he felt for the potential of new experimental sciences to a broad audience. In the introduction to the Discovery of a New World in the Moon he even cited his desire to inspire others to think about the possibility that the Moon was a world like Earth as the reason for the book.

When Wilkins wasn’t creating a language or dreaming of travelling to the Moon he spent time with similarly scientifically minded people. This trend began in London where he met weekly with a group who discussed and investigated “the New Philosophy.[1]”. Wilkins’ had two popular publications at this stage and was a prominent member of the scientific group. When Wilkins moved to Oxford in 1648 he became a central figure in a similar group of scientific men that included Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke. When he returned to London in 1660 the informal nature of these groups became formalised with a Royal Charter under the Restoration and Wilkins became a founding member of the Royal Society. He was fascinated by experimental science and his book Mathematical Magick discussed the practical applications and potential of mechanics to improve ordinary life. Not unlike technical innovators today, “Wilkins had a visionary sense of how technology might change the world. [2]” His theoretical work on the moon was accompanied by practical experiments on flying machines conducted by Robert Hooke and Wilkins in the gardens of Wadham College, Oxford, in the 1650s so that men could travel to the moon.

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Discovery of a New World in the Moonproposed a plurality of worlds. It argued that the Moon had a similar composition to the Earth complete with mountains, valleys, seas, its own atmosphere, and possibly inhabitants of some form. In 1638 these ideas were controversial. At a basic level Wilkins’ idea originated in the heliocentric model of the Universe. If the planets revolved around the Sun then Earth became just another planet. Earth loses its uniqueness and other celestial bodies could potentially be just like Earth. Wilkins cited the work of Johannes Kepler, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei and Tycho Brahe, the great proponents of heliocentrism, throughout his work and seeks to defend their belief. Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler are depicted in the frontispiece of the book alongside a heliocentric model of the universe. When Wilkins published the first edition of this book Galileo was under house arrest for his heretical belief in heliocentrism where he remained until his death in 1642. Fortunately, Wilkins lived far from the influence of the inquisition but nonetheless the newly ordained clergyman dedicated the second proposition in his book to proving ‘That a Plurality of Worlds doth not contradict any principle of reason or faith.’ Wilkins argued against the literal interpretation of the Bible and believed that scientific discovery would serve to deepen religious belief. In doing so he joined the debate that raged around heliocentrism on whether the new science contradicted the Bible [3].

He argued for a world in the Moon similar to Earth with 14 propositions as follows:

Proposition 1: That the strangenesse of this opinion is no sufficient reason why it should be rejected, because other certaine truths have beene formerly esteemed ridiculous, and great absurdities entertayned by common consent.

Proposition 2: That a plurality of worlds doth not contradict any principle of reason or faith.

Proposition 3: That the heavens doe not consist of any such pure matter which can priviledge them from the like change and corruption, as these inferiour bodies are liable unto.

Proposition 4: That the Moone is a solid, compacted opacous body.

Proposition 5: That the Moone hath not any light of her owne.

Proposition 6: That there is a world in the Moone, hath beene the direct opinion of many ancient, with some moderne Mathematicians, and may probably be deduced from the tenents of others.

Proposition 7: That those spots and brighter parts which by our sight may be distinguished in the Moone, doe shew the difference betwixt the Sea and Land in that other world.

Proposition 8: That the spots represent the Sea, and the brighter parts the Land.

Proposition 9: That there are high Mountaines, deepe vallies, and spacious plaines in the body of the Moone.

Proposition 10: That there is an Atmo-sphæra, or an orbe of grosse vaporous aire, immediately encompassing the body of the Moone.

Proposition 11: That as their world is our Moone, so our world is their Moone.

Proposition 12: That ‘tis probable there may bee such Meteors belonging to that world in the Moone, as there are with us.

Proposition 13: That ‘tis probable there may be inhabitants in this other World, but of what kinde they are is uncertaine.

Proposition 14: That ‘tis possible for some of or posterity to find out a conveyance to this other world, and if there be inhabitants there, to have commerce with them.

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Two years after the first publication of Discovery in 1640 Wilkins added a further Discourse arguing That the Earth may be a Planet in order to further defend Copernicanism. Edward Worth’s 1684 copy of Discovery, which he inherited from his father John Worth, contains both the discourse arguing that ‘tis probable there may be another habitable world on the Moon and the discourse that ‘tis probable our Earth is one of the Planets bound together. Wilkins used the first five propositions in the second discourse to show that there was no evidence in the Bible to contradict these ideas.In proposition VI-X Wilkins used the works of Galileo, Kepler, and Copernicus and others to explain the theoretical and physical evidence in support of the new Copernicanism. In these propositions he argued that there was no evidence to show that the Earth is the centre nor was there evidence to show that the Earth could not move. He argued that it was more probable that the Sun was the centre of the universe and that it was more likely that the Earth moved rather than the heavens.

Just as Wilkins wished, his book did inspire others to think about the Moon. For example Bernard Bovier de Fontenelle published his treatise on the plurality of worlds in 1686 and this book is also included in Edward Worth’s collection. Many literary creations followed Wilkins’ treatise including Cyrano de Bergerac’s satirical novel, L’Autre monde ou les états et empires de La Lune, which mirrored the faults of contemporary society in the actions of the inhabitants of the moon.

The Archbishop of Canterbury John Tillotson said of Wilkins,

‘There are or have been few of this age and nation so well known and greatly esteemed and favoured by so many persons of high rank and quality and of singular worth and eminence in all the learned professions.[4]

When parliamentary forces defeated Royalist Oxford in 1646 a reform was planned for the University. John Wilkins was chosen as warden of Wadham College. Wilkins created a thriving community particularly attractive to those interested in the new experimental sciences. From 1648 to 1659 Wilkins evolved Wadham into a tolerant neutral territory with partisan co-operation focusing on intellectual pursuits to reconcile political differences[5]. The gardens of Wadham college were home to numerous scientific experiments including the construction of flying machines to take him to the moon. Wilkins was much more than a quirky mad scientist however, his diplomacy made him one of the most influential men in Oxford at that time. In 1656 he married Oliver Cromwell’s younger sister Robina and was rewarded with a brief stint as Master of Trinity College Cambridge in 1659. On the Restoration of Charles II the position in Cambridge was returned to its previous occupier. Wilkins, however, had remained on good terms with royalists who placed their sons in his care at Oxford during the war. He had even worked in the service of Charles Louis, Prince elector Palatine, the nephew of Charles I from 1644-1648. In 1660 Wilkins was made Dean of Ripon Cathedral and Prebend at York Minister. In 1668 he became Bishop of Chester where his skills gained at Wadham were put to good use reconciling a fractured community of Catholics, Presbyterians, and Anglicans. When illness brought his life to an end in 1672 at the age of 58 Wilkins merely saw his death as just the next great Experiment[6].

To find out more about Worth’s collection of books on the Moon see the ‘Astronomy at the Worth Library‘ web exhibition.

[1] Barbara J. Shapiro, John Wilkins 1614-1672 (California, 1969) P.25.

[2] Allan Chapman, Warden Wilkins of Wadham, Wadham College, Oxford, website: https://www.wadham.ox.ac.uk/news/2013/november/warden-wilkins-of-wadham[accessed 30/10/2014].

[3] For more on Wilkin’s role in this debate see Shapiro p.50-54.

[4] Allan Chapman, Warden Wilkins of Wadham, Wadham College, Oxford, website: https://www.wadham.ox.ac.uk/news/2013/november/warden-wilkins-of-wadham[accessed 30/10/2014].

[5] John Henry, John Wilkins (1614-1672) theologian and natural philosopher, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. (Oxford University Press, Online edition). [accessed 30/10/2014]

[6] Shapiro, p.1

Text by Neasa McGarrigle, B.A. (TCD), M.Sc. (Oxon); Candidate for Ph.D, Trinity College Dublin.

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