Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Walking in microgravity: a fairytale version

I have been addicted to fairytales since a child, and still read them .... but normally don't expect to find anything relevant to space in them.  Hence I was very struck by this account of movement without gravity in George MacDonald's story The Light Princess, first published in 1864.  In the usual fashion, a magnificent christening is held for infant princess.  The king, however, neglects to invite his spiteful and magical sister, who deprives the little princess of her gravity.  This deprivation operates not only in the physical realm, for she can take nothing seriously and laughs at everything - although she never smiles.

Here is how MacDonald describes her "moonwalk":

I may here remark that it was very amusing to see her running, if her mode of progression could properly be called running. For first she would make a bound; then, having alighted, she would run a few steps, and make another bound.  Sometimes she would fancy she had reached the ground before she actually had, and her feet would go backwards and forwards, running upon nothing at all, like those of a chicken on its back.

I'm struck by this, I guess, because it is an attempt to describe the lack of gravity using only the imagination.  Not bad for 1864.

In fact the princess only feels her weight when immersed in water, and the lake where she loves to swim is instrumental in allowing a prince to release her from her affliction.

In Alison Lurie (ed) 1994  The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales.  Oxford University Press, Oxford

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