The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
"When Poets Were Scientists and Nature Their Mysterious Muse"
July 9th, 2009
The New York Times
July 9th, 2009
The New York Times
William Herschel, the German-born, star-gazing musician who effectively doubled the size of the solar system with a single discovery in 1781, was not regarded as a scientist. That word had not been coined during most of the era that will now be known, thanks to Richard Holmes's amazingly ambitious, buoyant new fusion of history, art, science, philosophy and biography, as "The Age of Wonder." And Mr. Holmes's excitement at fusing long-familiar events and personages into something startlingly new is not unlike the exuberance of the age that animates his groundbreaking book.
In Herschel's day (and that of his sister, Caroline, who functioned as his doting assistant to the point of feeding him like a baby bird), science was deductively methodical. And astronomy was no amateur's game. But Herschel charted the skies as if making musical notations. And when he lacked instruments with enough precision, he painstakingly invented a telescope with startling new powers of magnification.
Looking through it, he noted a starlike object, twice as far from the Sun as Saturn, that appeared to be moving yet did not have a comet's tail. He identified this as the planet Georgium Sidus, first named for George III of Britain but later known as Uranus. (Mr. Holmes is much too spirited a writer to resist making a bon mot about the English pronunciation of that name.)
Beyond enlivening the story of Herschel's discovery into a gripping narrative, this book speculates fascinatingly about the ramifications of such a breakthrough. Thanks to Herschel the idea of a fixed universe was challenged, replaced by a cosmos in flux. Was that cause for wonder or terror? What were its theological implications? How would it influence a future generation of poets? (The thrill of this breakthrough would later figure in one of Keats's most famous sonnets, "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer.") Where would it figure in the relay race of scientific discoveries?
In order to structure his big, sweeping book about such issues, Mr. Holmes uses two exploratory voyages as bookends. The first, a trip to Tahiti in 1769 led by Capt. James Cook, brought the eager young botanist Joseph Banks to a place he would regard as a paradise, botanical and otherwise. (Mr. Holmes quotes deftly from Banks's delightfully candid journals, noting that Banks wrote with "gentlemanly jeu d’esprit.") The book then follows Banks back to England, where, at the age of 35, he became president of the Royal Society in 1778. He would hold that post for 41 years and encourage the other young pioneers whose stories Mr. Holmes has told.
"The Age of Wonder," a book with a distinct taste for high times, next moves to the golden age of ballooning, which began as an offshoot of paper-bag manufacturing. Gorgeously illustrated, "The Age of Wonder" captures the full gaudiness of early French ballooning experiments in Easter-egg-colored airborne specimens. And it finds an element of bawdy comedy in the era's gossipy whisperings about what might happen up in the air. ("So the first Mile High Club was also formed," Mr. Holmes writes of one such story.)
A wild anecdote about one American-British collaborative effort says of the two balloonists that "quite early on, each accidentally managed to drop the other’s national flag over the side of the basket and then profusely apologized." As to the rest of what was spilled overboard, Mr. Holmes's attention to detail raises the question of how exactingly such scientific endeavours really need to be documented.
But this book also understands the seriousness of these early experiments and the confusion they engendered: Was the eagerness to make a first crossing of the English Channel a sporting, scientific or diplomatic matter? What could balloon flight be used to measure? What would be its legacy? (The first test pilot with "the right stuff" can be found here.) And why should this kind of story not be told as enthusiastically as stories about artists and historical figures are? Over all "The Age of Wonder" makes a splendid case for treating the history of science in a bright new way.
Much of the book is also devoted to Humphry Davy, whose reputation is multifaceted. He wrote poetry; he had lively friendships with some of the best-known writers of his day; he invented a lamp that would prevent methane gas from exploding and save the lives of countless miners. Best immortalized here, though, are Davy's experiments with nitrous oxide, tests in which he eagerly served as guinea pig. Inhaling that substance gave him "a thrilling all over me most exquisitely pleasurable," he recorded. "I said to myself I was born to benefit the world by my great talents."
That Davy did not benefit the world by realizing surgical patients could be anesthetized is symptomatic, Mr. Holmes writes, of the strange, uncharted world that this book explores. Davy knew he was discovering something; what he did not know was what its practical applications might be. And with the kind of throwaway brilliance that makes this book so enthralling, Mr. Holmes uses only a footnote to conjure one of science’s least documented realms: that of failure. The cliché of the "Eureka!" moment easily obscures the doubt and uncertainty that are also part of the discovery process.
A particularly inspired section of the book relates Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" to dissection, to the debate about the existence of a life force, and to the way fiction writers and poets could invoke spiritual power while avoiding making reference to God. But by the time the book reaches the Age of Wonder's concluding event, Charles Darwin's five-year voyage on the Beagle beginning in 1831, it has raised both the antecedents and ramifications of today's most enduring scientific debates, on subjects from global warming to extraterrestrial life to intelligent design. It is impossible to understand where these arguments are headed, "The Age of Wonder" maintains, without knowing where they began.
From a review of this book in The Guardian from last November:
"What's crucial is that in those days, society saw no gulf between the artist and the scientist. This point is an important one. It makes it clear that CP Snow's assertion - that society is split into two basic irreconcilable cultures, science and the arts - lacks any pedigree and is, indeed, most likely a false dichotomy. As Holmes makes clear, 200 years ago, poets, writers and scientists shared a common vision of Nature. There is no reason why they should not do so again."
To save some time here is the complete review.
"Pioneers in an age of enlightenment"
Richard Holmes presents a masterful and incident-packed account of a fertile time when science and art happily marched hand in hand.
November 2nd, 2008
On 1 December 1783, a crowd of 400,000 Parisians - half the city's population - gathered in the Tuileries Gardens to watch a scientific first: a manned ascent in a hydrogen balloon. Only a month earlier, the Montgolfier brothers had gripped Europe with news they had sent humans aloft in a vessel lifted by hot air. In its wake, balloon fever swept the Continent.
But according to Richard Holmes, the Montgolfiers' craft was an 'uncontrollable monster', unlike the vehicle designed by Alexandre Charles. This used 'inflammable air' - hydrogen, newly discovered by Lavoisier - to achieve its lift and was fitted with valves, ballast, barometers and thermometers. It was intended to be a true scientific test flight.
Thus Charles, accompanied by his assistant Ainé Roberts, set off in his balloon and flew serenely across the French countryside for two hours before landing at Nesle. Savouring his moment of glory, he asked Roberts to step out first. This was an error. Released of Roberts's weight, the balloon soared back into the evening air with the hapless Charles on board. Within 10 minutes, he had reached the astonishing height of 10,000 feet. 'I was the first man to see the Sun set twice in the same day,' Charles recalled. Utterly terrified, he just managed to land his craft and never flew again.
Charles's ordeal was not in vain, however. Benjamin Franklin, who had watched his ascent from Tuileries, was deeply impressed and envisaged the day when airborne armies would transform warfare; astronomer William Herschel wondered, presciently, if telescopes could be carried high into the clear upper atmosphere; while Samuel Johnson claimed it would soon be possible to examine 'the face of Nature, from one extremity of the Earth to the other.'
Such reactions vividly encapsulate this age of wonder, a time when science and Romanticism worked hand in hand to reveal, and revel in, the glories of Nature. With ballooning, says Holmes, 'science had found a powerful new formula: chemistry plus showmanship equalled crowds plus wonder plus money.'
This revolution was very different from the one previously wrought by the mathematical and philosophical works of Newton, Locke and Descartes. Those scholars certainly changed our vision of the cosmos, but in a distinctly elitist manner. They used only Latin or mathematical terms to describe their work and limited their numbers to a small circle of savants. The public were excluded.
By contrast, science's second great revolution was the work of men and women who were obsessed not just with discovery, but with a commitment 'to explain, to educate, to communicate'. And if this involved a bit of showmanship, so be it. Thus, on top of those balloon trips, there were the expeditions of Captain Cook and Mungo Park, who brought back exotic creatures and plants, as well as tales of danger and adventure, to an admiring British population; public lectures where Humphry Davy demonstrated dramatically how two glistening new elements - potassium and sodium - could be isolated by electrolysing pots of foul, bubbling caustic alkalis; and the construction of the great telescopes of Herschel, which revealed comets, nebulae and a new planet, Uranus, swimming across the night sky.
More important, these efforts were followed avidly and sympathetically not just by the public, but by poets and writers, including Byron, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley. For example, in 1816, Keats enshrined Herschel's discovery of Uranus in his poem 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer': 'Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken.'
Similarly, Joseph Haydn claimed a visit to Herschel, then living in Slough, in 1792 helped him write his oratorio The Creation; Byron's poem Don Juan includes a tribute to Davy's lantern, 'by which coals are safely mined'; while in 1812 Shelley used unmanned fire balloons to distribute copies of his revolutionary pamphlet, A Declaration of Rights. These were heady times.
At the same time, scientists were only too happy to turn to 'poesy' or song to express themselves. Throughout his life, Herschel, originally an organist and a man 'who could read the night sky like a skilled musician sight-reading a musical score', composed symphonies that are still played today. Similarly, Davy, a close friend of Wordsworth and Scott, wrote verse that could on occasion be profound and insightful.
What's crucial is that in those days, society saw no gulf between the artist and the scientist. This point is an important one. It makes it clear that CP Snow's assertion - that society is split into two basic irreconcilable cultures, science and the arts - lacks any pedigree and is, indeed, most likely a false dichotomy. As Holmes makes clear, 200 years ago, poets, writers and scientists shared a common vision of Nature. There is no reason why they should not do so again.
It is certainly a convincing thesis, admirably assembled by Holmes in a book that presents the reader with 'a relay race of scientific stories'. Thus the lives of botanist Joseph Banks, Davy the chemist, the poet Coleridge and a host of other scientific romantics are knitted together in a seamless narrative that is laced, to good effect, with a great deal of titillating gossip. The end result is a masterpiece: informative, amusing, insightful - and utterly compelling.
Holmes has won the British Royal Society Prize for Science Books for The Age of Wonder - and deservedly so.
Details are here:
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