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December 2009
 
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Curiosities

Micromégas, by Voltaire (1752)

MICROMÉGAS, a native of a planet orbiting Sirius, is a physically normal member of his species: 120,000 feet tall. Nearly 450 years old, he is on the brink of adulthood. Intellectually, though, he towers over his brethren: Micromégas has written a book that offended the Sirian censors, who banish him for 800 years. By riding sunbeams and comets, and manipulating the laws of gravity and magnetism, Micromégas jaunts through the Milky Way.

Attracted to Saturn's pretty ring (singular), he takes a closer look. The Saturnians are dwarves (merely 6,000 feet high) but they possess 72 different senses. Micromégas and an inquisitive Saturnian investigate a faint glimmer nearby, much smaller and dimmer than Saturn. En route to the dimmer glimmer, Micromégas observes that Mars has two moons (a fact not verified by humans until 1877).

The glimmer turns out to be a dungheap (Earth), inhabited by creatures so tiny that Micromégas mistakes a whale for a tadpole, and he perceives humans as talking atoms. He observes a war between 100,000 atoms wearing hats and 100,000 atoms wearing turbans, for possession of a lump of mud (Jerusalem). One atom quotes Aristotle, because Aristotle's writings are so incoherent that they must be very wise. Another atom, quoting Thomas Aquinas, vows that all the suns and stars were made solely for the benefit of the atoms inhabiting this dungheap. Micromégas gives the talking atoms a philosophy book containing all the knowledge that can be known with certainty. Its pages are blank.

—F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre

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