“It was I who destroyed Ehrenberg’s theory”

Volvox globator

Volvox globator Ehrenberg (frontispiece of Julian Huxley’s The Individual in the Animal Kingdom, after A. Lang).

“The Diamond Lens” is a short story published by the Irish writer Fitz-James O’Brien in 1858. It describes the quest of an obsessed amateur microscopist for ever greater degrees of magnification, a goal for which he is willing to go to exceptional lengths. O’Brien was apparently known for mixing scientific themes with mysticism, and “The Diamond Lens” certainly fits this description. I won’t spoil it any further; interested readers can download the story for free (in several formats) from The Gutenberg Project.

As the narrator and protagonist becomes a proficient microscopist, he encounters Volvox:

During this period of my labors, in which I submitted specimens of every substance that came under my observation to the action of my lenses, I became a discoverer—in a small way, it is true, for I was very young, but still a discoverer. It was I who destroyed Ehrenberg’s theory that the Volvox globator was an animal, and proved that his “monads” with stomachs and eyes were merely phases of the formation of a vegetable cell, and were, when they reached their mature state, incapable of the act of conjugation, or any true generative act, without which no organism rising to any stage of life higher than vegetable can be said to be complete. It was I who resolved the singular problem of rotation in the cells and hairs of plants into ciliary attraction, in spite of the assertions of Wenham and others that my explanation was the result of an optical illusion.

Apparently in 1858 writers could assume that their readers would know who Ehrenberg was. It’s interesting to see that sex (“conjugation”) was taken (by O’Brien at least) as the defining feature of “higher” (animal) life. He was right (that Volvox is not an animal), but for the wrong reason. Volvox and its relatives, as well as most plants, are capable of sexual reproduction, but I’m not sure if that was known in 1858.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    Apparently in 1858 writers could assume that their readers would know who Ehrenberg was

    I don’t think so. I think the author is engaging in a trick common to authors of a certain kind of hard sf – make reference to an authority on a subject as though they are well known. It gives the story texture and flatters the reader. Bonus points if you didn’t just make up the reference from whole cloth (e.g. “the mad arab Abdul Al Hazred” in HP Lovecraft) but instead did the research to provide a real one.

    • Matthew Herron says

      Fair enough, but you’ve got to give him mad bonus points for not just name dropping Ehrenberg but correctly attributing his views.

      • sonofrojblake says

        Oh definitely. Not as many mad bonus points as you (and any other similarly clued up reader) get for spotting it though.

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