It took me two weeks to read Richard Holmes’ brilliant The Age of Wonder. How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. Not because it’s hard to read, nor that the concepts discussed are difficult for someone like me without a decent scientific background. No, it’s that the book is so dense, so packed with ideas that I had to take a break half way through and read three other books before returning to it. ‘Romantic science’ seems like an oxymoron, but Holmes is writing of an age (the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) when it was possible for clever people like Dr Johnson, Samuel Coleridge and Shelley to be men of letters yet able to understand and appreciate scientific advances. (Was this the last time such a thing was possible, before the age of ‘two cultures’?) Johnson, for instance, at the end of his life, advised someone to visit William Herschel because ‘he can show you in the night sky what no man before has ever seen, by some wonderful improvements he has made in the telescope. What he has to show is indeed a long way off, and perhaps concerns us a little, but all truth is valuable and all knowledge pleasing in its first effects, and may subsequently be useful,’
Herschel, the professional musician and (at first) amateur astronomer, the discoverer of Saturn, is central to the book. So much of this account of scientific progress is about observation. The careful botanical and anthropological observations of Joseph Banks on his voyage with Cook. Herschel’s saying that he could ‘read the sky’ as a musician sight-reads music and that people needed to be taught to see what is before their eyes. Wordsworth and the romantic poets observing nature closely and describing it accurately. Keats making the wonderful connection between Herschel’s discovery of a new planet and his own thrill On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.
This history takes us from Cook’s extraordinary voyage on The Endeavour (1768 to 1771), with Banks on board as official botanist, to Charles Darwin’s travels on The Beagle (1831-36). We see Banks as first, the young, enthusiastic traveller, whom nothing daunted; later as President of the Royal Society and patron of scientific research. He promoted both Herschel and the very young Humphry Davy, soon astonishing audiences at public lectures with his dramatic experiments. He was the perfect showman and populariser.
The Orrery by Joseph Wright of Derby. This picture from Derby Museums. It’s used as the frontispiece to The Age of Wonder and illustrates public interest in such demonstrations
Davy was also a poet, a friend (for a while) of Coleridge and a romantic, for whom ‘Hope’ was a watchword. Coleridge wrote that science was performed with the passion of hope and was therefore poetical; it could lead to a better world. There was another side to this, as Charles Darwin was to find; many scientists (the word was not widely used until later), found themselves struggling to reconcile their discoveries with the existence of God. It’s astonishing that at the end of the eighteenth century Herschel and others were speculating that the universe must be infinite and our solar system but a minute part of it, doomed to eventual extinction. Shelley, a notorious atheist, had great fun with this but less bold spirits were more circumspect, referring carefully to supreme beings or great originators or, of course, ‘the divine watchmaker’. Then there was the problem of the uses to which scientific advances were put. Great navigational achievements like those of Cook led eventually to colonialism and the destruction of paradise (Tahiti). The new hot air balloons, as Horace Walpole sceptically noted, could be converted ‘into new engines of destruction to the human race – as is so often the case with refinements or discoveries in Science. … Could we reach the moon, we should think of reducing it to a province of some European kingdom.’ Walpole was right about the balloons. The French and British were already rivals in science. Soon they would be at war and plans made for transporting French troops across the Channel by air.
By the time Sir Joseph Banks died, full of honours, the Royal Society was no longer at the forefront of scientific discovery. Younger men like John Herschel (brilliant son of William) and Charles Babbage were impatient of its exclusivity and of members who made no contribution to science. There was talk of ‘British science’ being in decline. They needn’t have worried. By the 1830s Michael Faraday (former protégé of Davy and, many thought, not credited enough by him), was well ahead with his work on electro-magnetism, which transformed applied science. Faraday also started the annual lectures for children, still going today. On the Origin of Species was yet to come. More credit was given to women, like Mary Somerville.
I saw this book in the library and nearly put it back because of the small print but the thought of a book by Richard Holmes which I’d somehow missed made me take it home. He is so steeped in the writing of the period that he's able to make brilliant connections between science, philosophy and art. I’ve barely touched on many of the interesting points he makes but it’s hard to condense 500 pages of small print into a single page. What a fascinating read.