Micromégas, by Voltaire

Chapter V.

Experiments and reasonings of the two voyagers.

Micromegas slowly reached his hand towards the place where the object had appeared, extended two fingers, and withdrew them for fear of being mistaken, then opened and closed them, and skillfully seized the vessel that carried these fellows, putting it on his fingernail without pressing it too hard for fear of crushing it.

“Here is a very different animal from the first,” said the dwarf from Saturn.

The Sirian put the so-called animal in the palm of his hand. The passengers and the crew, who believed themselves to have been lifted up by a hurricane, and who thought they were on some sort of boulder, scurried around; the sailors took the barrels of wine, threw them overboard onto Micromegas hand, and followed after. The geometers took their quadrants, their sextants, two Lappland girls13, and descended onto the Sirian’s fingers. They made so much fuss that he finally felt something move, tickling his fingers. It was a steel-tipped baton being pressed into his index finger. He judged, by this tickling, that it had been ejected from some small animal that he was holding; but he did not suspect anything else at first. The microscope, which could barely distinguish a whale from a boat, could not capture anything as elusive as a man. I do not claim to outrage anyone’s vanity, but I am obliged to ask that important men make an observation here. Taking the size of a man to be about five feet, the figure we strike on Earth is like that struck by an animal of about six hundred thousandths14 the height of a flea on a ball five feet around. Imagine something that can hold the Earth in its hands, and which has organs in proportion to ours — and it may very well be that there are such things — conceive, I beg of you, what these things would think of the battles that allow a vanquisher to take a village only to lose it later.

I do not doubt that if ever some captain of some troop of imposing grenadiers reads this work he will increase the size of the hats of his troops by at least two imposing feet. But I warn him that it will have been done in vain; that he and his will never grow any larger than infinitely small.

What marvelous skill it must have taken for our philosopher from Sirius to perceive the atoms I have just spoken of. When Leuwenhoek and Hartsoëker tinkered with the first or thought they saw the grains that make us up, they did not by any means make such an astonishing discovery. What pleasure Micromegas felt at seeing these little machines move, at examining all their scurrying, at following them in their enterprises! how he cried out! with what joy he placed one of his microscopes in the hands of his traveling companion!

“I see them,” they said at the same time, “look how they are carrying loads, stooping, getting up again.” They spoke like that, hands trembling from the pleasure of seeing such new objects, and from fear of losing them. The Saturnian, passing from an excess of incredulity to an excess of credulity, thought he saw them mating.

“Ah!” he said. “I have caught nature in the act”15. But he was fooled by appearances, which happens only too often, whether one is using a microscope or not.

13 See the notes to the speech in verse, “On Moderation” (Volume XII), and those of “Russia to Paris” (Volume XIV). K.

14 The edition that I take to be original reads “sixty thousandths.” B.

15 j’ai pris la nature sur le fait. A happy, good-natured turn of phrase expressed by Fontenelle upon making some observations of natural history. K.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25