By Michael Baadke
French scientific writer and essayist Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle was born Feb. 11, 1657, in Rouen, France, and studied at the College de Bourbon, later known as the Collage Royale. Since 1873 the school has been named Lycee Pierre-Corneille.
In the early years of the Enlightenment, Fontenelle developed a reputation as a writer who could examine scientific studies and report them in a way that made it possible for nonscientists to understand the information.
Though his efforts as a poet and dramatist saw little success, his essays on scientific themes, written in a conversational style, found large audiences in France and Europe.
His most popular writings were Noveaux Dialogues des morts (New Dialogues of the Dead) in 1683, in which Fontenelle transcribed imagined philosophical conversations between some of history’s great figures, and Entretiens sur la pluraltie des mondes (Conversations on a Plurality of Worlds) in 1686, arguing in favor of the theory that other planets orbit the stars, and that life could exist on such worlds as they do on Earth.
Fontenelle was named secretary of the Academy of Sciences in 1697 and fulfilled that office for more than four decades. For that honor, he was depicted on a 60-centime stamp issued June 4, 1966, to mark the Academy’s 300th anniversary (Scott 1159).
Fontenelle lived for 99 years and 11 months before he died in Paris on Jan. 9, 1757.