A Voyage to the Centre of Jules Verne

Article excerpt

READ again today, most scientific works published in the last century seem distinctly old-fashioned. Both the theories propounded at that time and the terminology in which they were expressed appear outdated. The laboratory equipment used then looks to us archaic, almost grotesque.

But Jules Verne remains eternally young. A century after they were written his books are still best-sellers, not only in France but all over the world; only the Bible, Shakespeare and Lenin outstrip them. Today Verne's work is more popular than ever, and not only among young people.

What is his secret? Above all else he was a novelist to his fingertips, adept at fascinating his readers with descriptions in which poetry vies with fantasy and captivating them with the twists and turns of excellent plots full of adventures and mysteries prefiguring the modern whodunit.

Jules Verne is one of the masters of the art of suspense, which he sometimes prolongs into several volumes. When you have finished Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea you still do not know the identity of the mysterious Captain Nemo. This is only revealed in a later book, The Mysterious Island.

The denouement often contains a scientific message. Here appears another of Jules Verne's talents: he was a consummate teacher of the kind who stimulates the interest and enthusiasm of his pupils by amusing and intriguing them.

He excels at presenting abstract ideas in attractive form. One example is the difference of a day in calculating the length of a trip round the world. This discovery was made, not by Jules Verne, but by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and his crew who were astonished to find that the date when they reached Sanlucar was Saturday 6 September 1522 whereas according to their logbook that day should have been Friday the 5th; by voyaging westwards they had "lost" a day.

Verne's novel Around the World in Eighty Days is constructed around this phenomenon which has not occurred to the hero, Phileas Fogg. He thinks he has lost his bet after being held up in Great Britain near the end of his journey. Then, as he looks at a newspaper, he suddenly realizes that by travelling eastwards he has gained a day. He had seen the sun rise once more than people who had stayed in England. The few minutes he had lost here and there during his journey as he periodically adjusted his watch to solar time had gained him twenty-four hours.

In other cases, the solution of a problem is purely and simply imagined by the astonishingly inventive mind of Jules Verne. Thus the explorers in The Fur Country should have observed a total eclipse of the Sun but in fact they only observe a partial eclipse. Does this mean that an error has slipped into the calculation of the ephemerids? No, this is absolutely inconceivable in view of the degree of precision with which the movement of the Moon is known. The only possible explanation is that the explorers are no longer where they think they are because their island has become a raft.

With this incident Jules Verne thought up nothing less than the space sextant which was tested by Thomas Mattingly and Henry Hartsfield on the fourth mission of the space shuttle Columbia in the summer of 1982. This instrument works on the principle of taking account of the Moon's position in relation to the Sun in order to locate one's position.

These prophetic insights are all the more astonishing since Jules Verne was not a scientist; he had studied to be a notary. …