Saturday, July 25, 2015

For the Love of Flammarion

Flammarion in his observatory in Juvisy.

The scientist, astronomer, spiritualist, and psychic researcher Camille Flammarion, a contemporary of Jules Verne, came of age in mid-nineteenth century France at a time when young men quickened to the new life that technology and science offered, and steam-age France was a center of technical expertise and romantic thought. Flammarion would eventually become a key figure in encouraging Mars mania, but throughout his life he spread enthusiasm for astronomy, education, and imagination.
Born in rural France in 1842, at age five he became enamored of astronomy after witnessing an eclipse of the sun—his fascination intensified at eleven when he carefully tracked the movement of a comet. A local priest helped his early education, but after the family lost their land, Flammarion became an apprentice to an engraver in Paris—continuing his studies in night school. A physician treating him for exhaustion discovered the teenager’s lengthy manuscript, Cosmogonie Universelle, was impressed, and with his recommendation, Flammarion, at age sixteen became a “pupil astronomer” at the Paris observatory. His career as an astronomer, meteorologist, popular author, and cosmic visionary ensued.

At age twenty Flammarion jumped into a centuries-old debate and published The Plurality of Inhabited Worlds (1862) that made a case for life on different planets and even speculated what forms such life might take. His position was based on the argument from design—that is, God created planets for a purpose, and the obvious purpose was to harbor lifeever since Copernicus established the earth was not the center of the universe, this argument had appealed to leading philosophers.

Flammarion’s notions of extraterrestrial life, however, which included species of sentient plants, were more sophisticated than the usual assumption that all inhabitants of space would be virtually identical to human beings. In this and later books he endowed his extraterrestrials with the ability to sense in infrared or ultraviolet, and gave them spectroscopic abilities (to analyze chemicals), and an “electric” sense. Flammarion’s further catalog of intelligent species—which could be from a 1940s science fiction novel—included the plant-like, star-fish footed men of Theta Orionis, and the floating beings of Delta Andromedae who have no need to eat, but must frantically breathe nutrients from their planet’s dense atmosphere; all were adapted uniquely to unique worlds. Flammerion’s book was wildly popular; it went through thirty-three editions by 1880 and remained in print until 1921.

By age twenty-three, while continuing to work in observatories, Flammarion, an avid balloonist, had become president of the French Aerostatic Society. He made numerous ascensions while conducting meteorological experiments. These ballooning outings included his honeymoon, a flight in 1874 with his new wife Sylvie Petiaux-Hugo Flammarion (a grand-niece of Victor Hugo), and culminated in a work about the earth’s atmosphere.

From Flammarion's L'Atmosphere.

Flammarion was also intensely interested in the field of psychic research and wrote a book about the afterlife, relying on the pen-name Hermès. He alternated books on popular astronomy with books on psychic research as well as fiction that fused both realms. In 1877 Flammarion published his Catalog of Double Stars that became a critical tool for astronomers, and followed this with a lavishly illustrated book called Popular Astronomy (1880)—which argued there was likely life not only on Mars but also the Moon.  

 In 1877, Flammarion founded the French Society of Astronomy and in 1882 the magazine L’Astronomie. He also organized France’s first observatory open to the public. Central to the science of astronomy in the late nineteenth century, he was forgiven his outsized speculations.

Flammarion’s cosmology—which sought to fuse the physical and spiritual universes, offered a view in which the planets of this solar system and other star systems might be “heavens” or new Earths that humans went to after death where they were reincarnated. He offered this vision in Lumen (1872), and later in Uranie (1891), in which the muse of astronomy takes Flammarion on a tour of the universe, and Flammarion recounts meeting on Mars a friend who had died young in a ballooning accident only to be reborn on the Red Planet.  He also proposed that by traveling at a speed faster than that of light, one could move backwards in time, catching up with old light rays and so witness earlier events.

In Flammarion's Omega: The Last Days of the World (1894), scientists gather in 25th century Paris (this, even though the world's capital has become Chicago), amid airships and communiques from (friendly) Martians, to discuss the likely end of the world as a comet approaches the earth. While it misses, wreaking only mild havoc, the narrator continues to explore scenarios for the future evolution of humanity and eventual death of the planet.  

With his ballooning adventures, séances, impassioned writing, public lectures, ample energy, large furrowed brow, and handsome looks, Flammarion gained wealthy admirers.  A young and consumptive French countess, obsessed with Flammarion, had a picture of him tattooed on her skin, and ordered her physician to send Flammarion this portion of her skin after her death so that with it he could bind a volume of one of his books. He duly (hesitantly, gladly?) agreed and used it to bind a copy of Terres du Ciel in 1882. In 1882, another admirer gave Flammarion a mansion that he converted into an observatory in Juvisy-sur-Orge to the southeast of Paris. It was inaugurated in 1887 with the Emperor of Brazil in attendance.

 It wasn’t until after the opening of his own observatory that Flammarion fixed his interest on Mars. Flammarion’s La Planete Mars (1892) marshaled all the available knowledge about Mars, including the planet’s two moons, the waxing and waning of the planet’s polar ice caps, the seasonal color changes that suggested vegetation covered some of the planet’s surface (an idea that originated with Flammarion and maintained credence well into the twentieth century), its length of day (24 hours, 37 minutes) that closely paralleled that of the Earth, and the probably existence of Martian canals. Flammarion affirmed that Mars included “streams” and “seas,” but suggested that its age, greater than that of the Earth, explained its relative lack of water and great deserts. 

 While Flammarion could only confirm one of the numerous canals that the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, infamously, had mapped in 1877, Flammarion believed this indicated some engineering on the part of a sentient species on the planet. As he wrote, "the actual habitation of Mars by a race superior to our own is in our opinion very probable.” The wealthy Boston dilettante Percival Lowell, fascinated with Flammarion’s book, left his study of trances in Japan to open his own observatory in Arizona to establish the reality of life on Mars. 

Lowell relished a good argument. With data he supplied, the debate over the canals of Mars raged on and the "dying planet" became a staple of science fiction, spurring H.G. Wells's Martian octopii to invade the Earth and start the War of the Worlds (1898), while in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Under the Moon of Mars (1911)renamed A Princess of Mars, U.S. Civil War veteran John Carter bounds around Mars's quasi-orientalist cities, located along the canals, using super powers to gain prominence among its inhabitants and woo their princess. 

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