Book Review: Michael Dirda on 'The Age of Wonder' by Richard Holmes

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, July 30, 2009


How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

By Richard Holmes

Pantheon. 552 pp. $40

Richard Holmes is one of England's most admired biographers, his particular area of expertise being the romantic era in England and France. His previous books include exceptionally lively biographies of the poets Shelley and Coleridge and two volumes of shorter essays and profiles: "Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer" and "Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer." In "The Age of Wonder" he shifts his focus from literary genius to scientific genius, as he traces the course of English science from roughly 1768, when Capt. Cook began his voyage round the world, to 1831, when young Charles Darwin joined the Beagle on her expedition to the Galapagos Islands.

He zeroes in on four figures in particular: botanist Joseph Banks, who spent an intellectually (and sexually) thrilling three months in Tahiti as Capt. Cook's science officer before settling into his 41-year reign as president of the Royal Society; the astronomers William Herschel and his sister Caroline Herschel; and the chemist Humphry Davy. Holmes also includes chapters about Mungo Park's travels through Africa in search of the legendary Timbuctoo, a hair-raising account of the pioneering days of ballooning, and an interpretation of Mary Shelley's novel "Frankenstein" as a response to contemporary scientific debates about "vitalism" and the nature of human consciousness.

In his prologue Holmes maintains that "the idea of the exploratory voyage, often lonely and perilous, is in one form or another a central and defining metaphor of Romantic science." Wordsworth, for instance, summed up Newton as "a Mind for ever/Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone." In consequence, romantic science believed in both "the solitary scientific 'genius,' thirsting and reckless for knowledge, for its own sake and perhaps at any cost" and in the sudden "Eureka" moment of discovery. This period, adds Holmes, was also "the first great age of the public scientific lecture, the laboratory demonstration and the introductory textbook, often written by women."

Throughout "The Age of Wonder" Holmes portrays Sir Joseph Banks as the intelligence chief of English science, whose official correspondence might touch on "planting crops in South Australia, collecting antiquities in Egypt, surveying the ice pack towards the North Pole, breeding dogs in Newfoundland, or even capturing giant sea snakes off Scandinavia." Holmes regularly opens his chapters with Banks receiving some strange report, tinged with mystery. Thus: "Shortly after his election as President of the Royal Society in 1778, Joseph Banks began to hear rumours of an unusually gifted amateur astronomer working away on his own in the West Country."

This turns out to be William Herschel, a German emigre who made his own reflector telescopes, even laboriously grinding his own mirrors. Banks was, at first, justifiably skeptical of Herschel, who was then speculating that the "moon craters were artificially constructed circular cities . . . built especially to harness solar power for the lunar inhabitants." But any doubts about Herschel's abilities were soon dissipated: "On Tuesday, 13 March 1781, slightly before midnight, Herschel spotted a new and unidentified disc-like object moving through the constellation of Gemini. This discovery would change his entire career, and become one of the legends of Romantic science."

That object was a new planet, the first to be discovered in more than a thousand years: Uranus. Because Herschel worked in tandem with his younger sister Caroline, he and she were both eventually granted yearly research stipends from the government, hers being "the first professional salary ever paid to a woman scientist in Britain."

A few years after the discovery of Uranus, Banks "began to receive secret reports . . . of strange rumours from Paris about the possible existence of a French flying machine." Before long, both England and France were in the grip of balloon mania. "By the end of 1784, the second year of the great balloon craze, no fewer than 181 manned ascents had been recorded, mostly in France and England." The young military balloonists of the French Corps d'Aerostation even "took local girls up with them for joyrides and thrilling aerial love-making over the side of the basket," thus establishing "the first Mile High Club."

Ballooning soon led to a new fascination with clouds -- a perennial interest of English romantic poets -- while also producing a transformed vision of our planet: "The early aeronauts suddenly saw the earth as a giant organism, mysteriously patterned and unfolding, like a living creature. For the first time the impact of man on nature was clearly revealed: the ever-expanding relationship of towns to countryside, roads to rivers, cultivated field to forests, and the development of industry."

In Chapter 6 Holmes introduces the great chemist Humphry Davy with a typical flourish. "During the late 1790s Joseph Banks started to get controversial reports of chemical experiments being carried out at a so-called 'Pneumatic Institute' in the Hotwells district of Bristol." Davy came from a poor Cornish family and was largely self-educated, but nonetheless managed to be knighted at age 33 for his contributions to chemistry and the nation. While still a very young man, he experimented with nitrous oxide (laughing gas), adumbrated what is now known as the "carbon cycle" -- the give and take of oxygen and carbon dioxide between plants and animals -- and invented the Davy Safety Lamp for miners. His lectures about science were so popular that Albemarle Street was "designated the first one-way in London, to avoid the traffic jam of carriages on Davy's lecture days."

"The Age of Wonder" ends with accounts of the first meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and a quick look forward to such forthcoming achievements as Darwin's theory of evolution, the further astronomical discoveries of Herschel's brilliant son John, and Charles Babbage's attempts to build a "difference engine" (the forerunner of the computer). As seems appropriate, Holmes's enthralling book itself exemplifies those qualities fostered by a scientific culture: "the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe."

Dirda -- -- writes in Style each Thursday.

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