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  1. The discoveries made possible by the telescope and microscope were disturbing as well as exhilarating. Early responses to what John Donne called the "new philosophy" included deep discomfort and attempts by the Church to suppress scientific inquiry; in 1633, Galileo was forced by the Inquisition to recant his "false opinion" that "the earth is not the center of the world and moves."
    1. Why would the discoveries made with the telescope have appeared threatening to Christian belief? How does John Donne respond to the "new philosophy" in his Anatomy of the World (NAEL 8, 1.1289)?
    2. In Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (NAEL 8, 1.1022), a man asks a devil for the truth about "divine astrology," while in Book 8 of Milton's Paradise Lost (NAEL 8, 1.1960–73) a man poses similar questions to the angel Raphael. Compare these two episodes. What does each suggest about the proper scope and limits of human knowledge?
  2. Although the Church's initial response was largely hostile, during the next few centuries the "new philosophy" and its plurality of worlds became acceptable Christian doctrine. Most of the writers and artists in this section of the Norton Topics Online Web site view the plurality of worlds as evidence for faith, not as antagonistic to it.
    1. How do these writers and artists reconcile scientific knowledge with Christian faith? Why do Pascal and Sterne, for instance, find their religious beliefs confirmed rather than refuted by the new scientific discoveries?
    2. What religious implications do you find in the pictures by Thomas Wright and Joseph Wright?
    3. Have your own beliefs been at all affected by looking through microscopes and telescopes? What ideas or lessons have been suggested by what you have seen there?
  3. "The world" is an ambiguous term, which can stand at once for the earth or universe as a whole and for a particular social class, the privileged and fashionable people who set the tone of society. Many of the writers who popularized the notion of a plurality of worlds seem to be thinking about society as well as science.
    1. What is the relation between the cosmic or microscopic worlds discovered by the new science and the elite social class that takes pleasure in them, according to Margaret Cavendish, Stephen Duck, and The Female Spectator?
    2. The illustration of Fontenelle's Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds graphically expresses the collision of cosmic and social "worlds." Why would Fontanelle use a flirtation with an aristocrat to popularize the new discoveries?
    3. In the last analysis, is the plurality of worlds a democratic doctrine, or a doctrine that suggests that certain people and classes are superior to others? What arguments can be made on both sides?
  4. Christiaan Huygens draws conclusions about the probable nature of extraterrestrial societies based on comparison with "the barbarous people of America."
    1. What similarities can you see between the discovery and conceptualization of "other worlds" in space and the "New World" in the western hemisphere? Compare the texts in this Norton Topics Online topic with some of those devoted to the world explored by Europeans in the sixteenth century.
    2. Make a comparison between Huygens's and Fontenelle's ways of reasoning about other worlds and Michel de Montaigne's reflections on the society of cannibals.
  5. In his letter to the Royal Society (NAEL 8, 1.2156), Newton's report of his methods and deductions about the nature of light is shot through with expressions of pleasure and wonder.
    1. What aspects of Newton's findings elicit the most pleasure and excitement, and why? Are there aspects of his discoveries which he or a reader might find disturbing or frightening?
    2. What consequences might Newton's discovery that objects have no colors in themselves "but put on all colors indifferently with which they are enlightened" have for thinking about society and religion?
  6. When Sir Thomas Browne wrote that "there is all Africa and her prodigies in us" (NAEL 8, 1.1587), he was not thinking of what could be seen through a microscope. To what extent did the new scientific methods of inquiry make Browne's approach in Religio Medici and Hydriotaphia obsolete? Do you think anything of value was lost in this transition? What echoes of Browne's concerns and his way of reasoning do you find in the more "scientific" approach of the eighteenth century?
  7. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there was no clear line between scientific speculation and what we now call "science fiction." Johann Kepler and John Wilkins wrote about possible life on the moon, while Margaret Cavendish imagined infinite inhabited worlds in The Blazing World. Today, works that go by the name of "science fiction" are rarely taken seriously either as science or as literature; but a number of twentieth-century writers in other genres have reflected on science and its impact on our view of the world.
    1. What insight do contemporary science fiction books and films offer into modern sciences such as astronomy and biology? What do they suggest about our view of the role of science in society?
    2. What role does scientific learning play in poems such Hugh MacDiarmid's We Must Look at the Harebell (NAEL 8, 2.2467), Fleur Adcock's The Ex-Queen Among the Astronomers, and Craig Raine's A Martian Sends a Postcard Home?
  8. Why would English women of the Restoration and eighteenth century have been interested in exploring other worlds? Why and to what extent would men have regarded this as a suitable female pursuit? How would Margaret Cavendish and the male Philo-Naturae have regarded each other's writings and views about the role of women in science? How, given the views expressed in The Aims of the Spectator (NAEL 8, 1.2473), would Addison respond to both?
  9. When writers like Fontenelle and Huygens speculate on the inhabitants of other worlds, they consider how extraterrestrials may differ from human beings, as well as ways in which they are likely to be similar. Read their comments closely, noting as well aspects of human society which they simply do not bring up. What do their speculations and their silences suggest about their views of nature and society?
  10. Addison's essay on "the Authors of the new Philosophy" emphasizes the pleasure and wonder aroused by microscopic and astronomical discoveries, while his essay on the "Scale of Being" (NAEL 8, 1.2490) and his ode on the glory of creation make these discoveries the basis of religious and moral contemplation. What links, and what tensions, if any, do you perceive between the pleasure derived from the new science and its moral value? You may consider this question in relation to:
    1. Addison's writings.
    2. Pope's Essay on Man (NAEL 8, 1.2540).
    3. The poems of Thomas Traherne (NAEL 8, 1.1769).
  11. What does Johnson's tale of the deluded Egyptian astronomer in chapters 40–47 of Rasselas (NAEL 8, 1.2730) suggest about the potential pitfalls of the new learning? Is the scientific method a corrective to the astronomer's delusions, or their cause?
  12. Read about the lives and discoveries of two pioneers of the microscope, Robert Hooke and Antony van Leeuwenhoek, on the Web. What significance do you find in the substances they chose to examine and how they described them? What metaphors and similes drawn from this world do they employ to describe the world under the microscope?
  13. View the images of distant stars and cataclysmic events taken in recent years by The Hubble Telescope. How do you respond to these images, with and without reference to the accompanying explanations? How might eighteenth-century stargazers have interpreted and responded to these pictures?

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