The Discovery of a World in the Moone
or, A Discourse Tending to Prove
that 'tis probable there may be another
habitable World in that Planet

by John Wilkins

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
London: 1638

209 pages; diagrams

August 2007

The new science of Astronomy

The Discovery of a World in the Moone is a neat little book by which John Wilkins (1614-1672) helped to popularize in England the new science of Astronomy, based in particular on Johann Kepler's Somnium and Galileo's discoveries with the telescope.

Wilkins covers a surprising range of speculation on the nature of the Moon and the visible Lunar features, seen in tantalizing new detail with the new telescopes; Luna's possible inhabitants; and our potential means of travel thither. He amiably disputes with ancient and contemporary authors, drawing you into his thinking and making his conclusions seem quite reasonable.

Wise antiquity fabled Mercury carrying a rod in his hand to relate news from Heaven, and call back the souls of the dead, but it hath been the happiness of our industrious age to see and admire Galileo the new Ambassador of the Gods furnished with his perspective to unfold the nature of the Stars, and awaken the ghosts of the ancient Philosophers.

After citing "Authors both ancient and modern", Wilkins says that there are

Very many others both English and French, all who affirmed our Earth to be one of the Planets, and the Sunne to be the Centre of all, above which the heavenly bodies did move, and how horrid soever this may seem at the first, yet it is likely enough to be true, nor is there any maxim or observation in Opticks ... that can disprove it.

Even if what is true seems at first to be horrid, still we may get used to the idea, even comfortable. The immediate corollary:

Now if our earth were one of the Planets (as it is according to them) then why may not another of the Planets be an earth?

Definitely. Granting, however, that Earthliness must be a matter of degree, all Solar and extra-Solar planets lying along a spectrum from most Earthlike to least. With improved observation and (several centuries later) visits from Earth, Luna does not turn out to be as homely as Wilkins hoped. But seeing the Moon as a type of planet is a triumph for the scientific process and outlook.

Science & literature in the 17th Century

Marjorie Hope Nicolson devotes considerable discussion to The Discovery of a World in the Moone in her literary history Voyages to the Moon, as well as mentions in several of her other studies in the confluence of science and literature in the Seventeenth Century.

Wilkins was no writer of fiction but one of the important members of the Philosophical Society of Oxford and the Royal Society of London. Widely read in the literature of science, Wilkins was equally well read in Lucianic fantasy and in the philosophy from which the cosmic voyage grew. His Discovery is one of the first important books of modern "popular science," a work written by a man who knew the technicalities of science, yet who — no mean stylist — had the ability to explain these technicalities to the general reader ....

With the romances of Kepler and Godwin, Wilkins' Discovery established the conventions of the moon-voyage for more than a century.

Marjorie Hope Nicolson
Voyages to the Moon  (1948)

As with other books of the period available in facsimile, the modern reader should possess a tolerance for antique conventions of typography and spelling. And Wilkins translates some of his Latin and other quotations, but not all. That said, the book is very readable.

John Wilkins wrote The Discovery of a World in the Moone before the English Civil War; he later married Oliver Cromwell's sister, and still later became the first secretary of the Royal Society. This seems deep in the past, in the infancy of science. But science's new dynamic is at work. Francis Bacon's influence and the scientific method are opening minds, and inspired amateurs take first steps in new directions. Already, in the Seventeenth Century, the Space Age is dawning faintly on the horizon.


© 2007 Robert Wilfred Franson

JMF facilitated this.

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