The Atom (From The Sea by Jules Michelet)
Translated by Matthew Redman
One day, a fisherman gave me the dregs of his catch from the bottom of his net – three creatures in all, and all of them nearly dead: an urchin, a starfish, and another star, a pretty ophiure, which was still moving but whose delicate arms fell apart in my hands. I gave them some seawater, then other cares distracted me. I forgot about them for two days. When I returned, all were dead, and the water I had left them in was unrecognisable. A wondrous transformation had occurred.
A thick gelatinous film now covered the surface. I pricked the substance with the tip of a pin, extracting a globule from its surface. I placed this atom under a microscope, and here is what it showed me:
A welter of fat, frantic animalcules (kolpods), to-ing, fro-ing, and giddy with life – giddy, I venture to say, with the joy of being born. They were feting their birth with a strange bacchanal.
In among them were swarms of tiny snakelets, microscopic eel-things, not so much swimming in the soup as vibrating themselves along it. (Hence their name: vibrions.)
Though my eyes were soon tired by the unceasing motion of the animalcules, I came to notice amid the tumult certain zones of stillness. In these places the vibrions were stiff, immobile; presently I came to see that they were joined together in bunches, in swags, in hives, where they made no effort to free themselves, and seemed almost content, in their way, as if awaiting a promised moment of deliverance.
All the while, as the little eels fermented in their bunches, the round fat creatures (those kolpods) jostled, foraged – raged. They gorged themselves on their surroundings, grazing indiscriminately, growing visibly fatter and more frenetic as I watched them.
Note that this seething spectacle was entirely contained within an atom pin-pricked from the original filmy ooze — how many times over must these scenes have repeated themselves in the rest of that glutinous ocean! How many creatures must have sprung so promptly from the mire! Those two days had been well spent indeed: from the depleted lives of those ebbing stars a universe had burst into existence. Where once I had three animals, I now had millions of animalcules – and all so young and cheery, in such violent and fascinating transports, and with so furious a thirst for life!
The infinitesimal world, for all that it is inseparable from the visible world of ours – for it is all around us, and also within us – was largely unknown to us until recent advances in science. Swammerdam and others had glimpsed of it centuries ago, but they lacked the means for any farther inquiry. Only much later, in 1830, was this world revealed to us through Ehrenberg’s prodigious scientificking. He studied the faces of these invisibles, noted their society and customs, watched them absorb, devour, hunt, navigate, wage their wars. But the manner of their generation eluded him. How do animalcules love? Do they love? Perhaps, in the case of lives as elementary these, it is nature who suffers the costs of some inscrutable genesis? Or are they born spontaneously, like certain vegetable moulds? They come up like mushrooms, goes the consensus today.
Such vast questions; put them to a scientist and as like as not he will shake his head and smile. How sure some of us are! That we have the mysteries of the world down pat, that the laws we have found for life are set in stone! It is the lot of nature to obey, say these learned men. When it was put to Réaumur, a century ago, that the female silkworm can reproduce on its own, with no need of a male, he rejected the notion out of hand. “Nothing can come from nothing,” he said. But the fact of a spontaneous generation, long denied and continually proven, has now been observed beyond all argument – and not only in the silkworm, but in the bee, certain butterflies, and in other animals besides.
Matthew Redman is part of the MA Literary Translation class of 2021. French to English is his favourite language pair. When brave he works with German. When irresponsible he translates from Spanish.