September 18, 2012

The Microbe

        Here's a science fiction poem for you.  Originally published in 1898, it was a little behind the scientific times -- van Leeuwenhoek had already seen microorganisms 300 years earlier.  But if Hilaire Belloc's science is weak, his fiction is strong.  This is a microbe anyone would be excited to find under the lens of their microscope.

The Microbe

The Microbe is so very small
You cannot make him out at all,
But many sanguine people hope
To see him through a microscope.
His jointed tongue that lies beneath
A hundred curious rows of teeth;
His seven tufted tails with lots
Of lovely pink and purple spots,
On each of which a pattern stands,
Composed of forty separate bands;
His eyebrows of a tender green;
All these have never yet been seen --
But Scientists, who ought to know,
Assure us that they must be so…
Oh! let us never, never doubt
What nobody is sure about!

        Now, I've made the claim before that the difference between sci fi and fantasy is less about the setting and more about the themes and the role of technology in a story, so you might argue that this poem is really just fantasy…  But what is Belloc's cynical little moral if not a commentary on the role that science and "scientific experts" play in our lives?  What is it but an invitation to consider how we know what we know when we can't possibly know everything through our own experience?  (And it pleases me to imagine that today's hot science mystery, Dark Matter, might be composed of something equally fantastical!)

[Picture: The Microbe, drawing by an artist listed only as B.T.B.
The poem and its illustration come from More Beasts for Worse Children, by Hilaire Belloc, 1898.]

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