|This 19th century work of science fiction concerns an attempt by the Baltimore Gun Club to launch three astronauts in a projectile fired from a giant cannon. The novel mostly concerns the practical obstacles faced by the club before the launch (and the actual journey of the astronauts was taken up in the sequel, Round the Moon). It is well-known among scientists for the work that the author put into working out whether such a mission was really feasible. Although he was mistaken overall (a missile with its own propulsion is necessary rather than something simply ballistic), some of Verne's computations were surprisingly accurate and impressive for the time. The fact that these calculations were primarily done by the author outside of the novel rather than being included in it was previously my justification for not having an entry for this work on this website.
Frequent site contributor Vijay Fafat wrote me long ago and mentioned this Verne novel in which the gun club president "discusses details of possible geometric ways of communication with extraterrestrials, mathematical considerations of the trip to the moon, orbital recalculations, etc". However, it was not until recently (Oct. 2021) when he sent me this excerpt that I realized the significance of this story to the history of mathematical fiction as an early (if not the earliest) suggestion that the universal language of mathematics could provide a means of communicating with extraterrestrials. (I don't know why it took me so long to realize this...Vijay mentioned it in his original message about it!)
The relevant passage is:
|(quoted from From the Earth to the Moon [De la Terre à la Lune, trajet direct en 97 heures 20 minutes])|
"I have now enumerated," said Barbicane, ''the experiments which I call purely paper ones, and wholly insufficient to establish serious relations with the Queen of Night. Nevertheless, I am bound to add that some practical geniuses have attempted to establish actual communication with her. Thus, a few days ago, a German geometrician proposed to send a scientific expedition to the steppes of Siberia. There, on those vast plains, they were to describe enormous geometric figures, drawn in characters of reflecting luminosity, among which was the proposition regarding the 'square of the hypothenuse, commonly called the “Ass's Bridge” by the French.
“Every intelligent being,” said the geometrician, “must understand the scientific meaning of that figure. The Selenites, do they exist, will respond by a similar figure; and, a communication being thus once established, it will be easy to form an alphabet which sliall enable ns to converse with the inhabitants of the moon.” So spoke the German geometrician; but his project was never put into practice, and up to the present day there is no bond in existence between the earth and her satellite.”
See also Love and a Triangle and Old Faithful for other early examples of the notion that math might provide a means of communicating with aliens.
Professionally printed versions of this book are still available, but it can also be read online for free at many sites including Gutenberg.org