The Astronomer at the End of the World
Visions of Scientific Authority in Camille Flammarion's Apocalyptic Fiction
During the fin de siècle, a Romantic trend in apocalyptic fiction coincided with a boom in popular science writing and spectacles. Astronomer and science popularizer Camille Flammarion made his career at this confluence, establishing a vision of science as fundamentally imaginative and necessarily in communication with the public, rather than a strictly empirical enterprise limited to specialists. This essay will take Flammarion’s use of apocalyptic themes and imagery as a window onto the turbulent negotiations over scientific authority around the turn of the century. In his novel La Fin du monde, and related writings, speculative plots about the end of the world are used to deliver scientific knowledge to the public, while at the same time demonstrating the potential dangers of bad communication and irresponsible speculation. For Flammarion, the end of the world was an especially fruitful site for these debates because it was both impossible and unavoidable: impossible because the universe was supposedly infinite, and unavoidable because entropy pointed in only one direction. This apparently unresolvable dilemma provided an ideal setting for Flammarion’s vision of an open science as authoritative over unseen events and mediating through troublesome processes of transmission and distortion.