How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
By Richard Holmes
Pantheon Books. 576 pp. $40
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Reviewed by Richard Di Dio
Future chroniclers might well classify today's science as a product of the Age of Cynicism. From climate science to evolution, from stem cells to genetically modified foods, political ideology and religious belief often lead some to distort the very essence of science by denying data, or branding theories as talking points from the "other side of the aisle."
Certainly, no one is making a living writing poetry about it.
It wasn't always this way. In his groundbreaking The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, Richard Holmes re-creates a time when scientists and poets took inspiration from each other, and, in the process, revealed new ways to understand and describe the world opening up before them.
The late-18th-early-19th-century era of Romantic Science marks the beginning of public science. In Britain, this development can be credited to Joseph Banks - explorer, president of the Royal Society, and a man adept at using his political and societal connections to raise large sums of money. Under his leadership, the society funded a wide range of scientific studies that led to stunning breakthroughs by William Herschel in astronomy, Humphry Davy in chemistry, and many others.
Past presidents of the Royal Society, including Isaac Newton, had kept science for themselves and the ruling class. Banks helped bring science to the masses by establishing the Bakerian Lecture, a prize lecture that still exists. These open lectures soon became the hottest ticket in London. With their talks carefully prepared and theatrically delivered, the scientists quickly became famous and, in Holmes' telling, Romantic heroes.
This status was enhanced by the Romantic poets - Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, Keats, and Byron - frequent audience members who often incorporated the ideas and images of science into their own work. For example, Keats' reaction to Chapman's Homer demanded an astronomical reference:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken. . . .
The new planet is Uranus, discovered by Herschel in 1781. For Holmes, Herschel "fits the stereotype that first began entering the public consciousness in these days: a solitary scientific genius, thirsting and reckless for knowledge, for its own sake and perhaps at any cost." After building the world's best telescope in his backyard, Herschel sat hunched, squinting into an eyepiece, for decades, mapping the heavens.
It is hard for us now to imagine the effect of Herschel's observations on those first audiences. Expanding the size of the known universe a thousand-fold, the strange zoo of galaxies and nebulae implied a universe still unfolding. Decades before Darwin, the idea of stellar evolution was jarring to those for whom a static universe was the image of God's perfection.
Few scientists can match Humphry Davy's brilliance and reckless thirst for knowledge. The ultimate bad-boy chemist, Davy first gained notice at the Huxleyesque-named Pneumatic Institute with his experiments on the physiological effects of nitrous oxide - laughing gas. Almost addicted with four inhalations a day, Davy catalogued the fainting fits, nausea, and migraines that resulted from different dosages.
Davy's lectures made him rock-star famous. Soon, well-heeled Londoners and poets inhaled the gas at what must have been the world's first "whippet" parties. Coleridge, a significant influence on Davy's science, compared nitrous to opium, to which he was addicted. This may have prompted Davy to compose an ode after inhaling four quarts. A unique use of poetry as scientific data, "On Breathing Nitrous Oxide" was poetically poor but scientifically valuable. Perhaps realizing this, Davy gave up the gas, made many discoveries, was knighted, and became president of the Royal Society.
Holmes does not skirt the controversies generated by the new scientific discoveries. Remarkably, they are similar to our own. When combined with the inevitable aversion to change, a creeping anti-science movement is a necessary byproduct.
Holmes, a British biographer who has written several books on Romantic poets, is the perfect Romantic to write this book. He can elucidate the palpable wonder of an attendee at a Davy lecture because he includes powerful descriptions of his own wonder at the science he has come to know.
And he can also be quite whimsical, as in this brief bio that appears in the helpful "cast list" of Romantic Era botanists, balloonists, and bluestockings:
Wolfgang Von Goethe, 1749-1832. German heavyweight boxer, went ten rounds with the ghost of Sir Isaac Newton, referees still out.
The referees are definitely not out on The Age of Wonder, a fascinating and important addition to the history of science, literature, and culture.
Reading Holmes' poetic tribute to the symbiotic relationship between science and literature may ultimately help us agree with Humphry Davy that the "love of nature is the same passion as the love of the magnificent, the sublime, and the beautiful" - and become less cynical in the process.