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Plurality of Worlds

January 17, 2011

On warm evenings, a philosopher and a noblewoman stroll through a garden and look at the stars. He tells her that the Moon is a lot like Earth, and is most likely inhabited. So are the other planets, all of which revolve around the Sun, not Earth. And so, perhaps, are planets that orbit the myriad stars of the Milky Way. The marquise comes away with a new appreciation for the vastness of the universe.

And so did the readers of this popular tale, known as "Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds." Written by Bernard de Fontenelle, it was published 325 years ago.

At the time, most people thought that Earth was the center of the universe. Fontenelle set out to prove otherwise. His book laid out the arguments in a series of conversations between the philosopher and noblewoman -- chosen to broaden the book's appeal with women readers. And he wrote the book in French instead of Latin to appeal to the general public.

"Conversations" was an instant hit. It was translated into 10 other languages, and was reprinted many times over the following couple of decades.

The book is credited with helping sell the ideas of the Copernican Revolution to the public. Earth became simply one of six planets orbiting the Sun. And readers accepted the idea that many other stars could have inhabited planets -- a plurality of worlds in a vast universe.

We'll talk about efforts to find worlds that are at least conducive to life tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010

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