Between Pleasure and Terror: Enlightenment Science and Maupertuis Letter on the Comet

Lydia Barnett*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The prospect of a comet colliding with the earth was a persistent theme in eighteenth-century natural philosophy, particularly in Britain and France. This article surveys the widespread speculations about catastrophic interactions between comets and the earth in order to open up broader questions about the Enlightenments imagination of global disaster. Focusing on Pierre-Louis de Maupertuis Letter on the Comet (1742), which presents the annihilation of the earth by comet as a remote but nonetheless real future threat, I show how a text intended as pleasing edu-tainment for an upper-class audience of educated Parisians nevertheless moves between different generic traditions and emotional registers. Maupertuis Letter cycled rapidly between inciting and discouraging readers fear, revealing a profoundly ambivalent attitude towards global disaster marked by the simultaneous airing and suppressing of a sense of cosmological disquiet.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)30-45
Number of pages16
JournalArchitectural Theory Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2 2015


  • Comet
  • Enlightenment
  • Maupertuis
  • disaster
  • history of science

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts


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