Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science By Richard Holmes - Review

source: highlights
Richard Holmes talks in Bristol on 8 May 2009. Others reviews in The Telegraph by Mike Gray, in The Guardian by Robin Mckie and in The Spectator by Ben Wilson.

Patricia Fara
The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
By Richard Holmes (HarperPress 554pp £25)

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Whatever C P Snow may have decreed about an unbridgeable divide between the Two Cultures, Romantic writers were fully aware of recent scientific discoveries. As a twenty-year-old medical student, John Keats spent a drink-fuelled night enthusing over a newly purchased verse translation of Homer's Iliad. Early the next morning, he took less than four hours to set down his own famous poem, in which he compared his feelings with those of 'some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken'. Keats was referring to William Herschel, the astronomer who had effectively enlarged the solar system at the end of the eighteenth century by detecting a sixth planet, now known as Uranus, but initially named after George III. At school, Keats and his class mates had learnt about gravity through role play out in the yard: while one pupil remained stationary to act as the sun, the other child-planets circled round at different speeds and distances to form a living orrery, the human equivalent of the moving mechanical model so dramatically painted by the Enlightenment's great artist of science and industry, Joseph Wright of Derby.

Wright's famous picture of this astronomical instrument adorns the cover of Richard Holmes's stellar collective biography, The Age of Wonder.

Justly renowned as Britain's greatest literary historian of the Romantic period, Holmes, in his latest book, gives a gripping account of the scientific research that inspired a sense of wonder in poets and experimenters alike. He calls for, and also delivers, a new approach to science's history, one that focuses on scientists as individuals rather than as impersonal agents of discovery, and that rejects rigid distinctions between science and the arts, or between science and religion.

Holmes is a literary traveller who sets out to share his subjects' experiences. In earlier books, he literally followed in his writers' footsteps, while in The Age of Wonder he emulates Romantic bids to glorify science by producing stirring biographies of its practitioners. For Holmes as well as for his poets, scientific research is itself a voyage of discovery, and he emphasises William Wordsworth's portrayal of Isaac Newton as a lonely explorer: 'Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone'. For his own tour through the past, Holmes marks out two long journeys as boundaries: James Cook's first trip around the world, from 1768 to 1771, and Charles Darwin's five years on the Beagle, from 1831 to 1836.

This choice of voyages enables Holmes to concentrate on an exceptionally significant span of sixty years when professionalised science came into existence. One of his key figures, Humphry Davy, started his career in Cornwall as an apothecary's apprentice, switched to carrying out controversial experiments with mind-enhancing drugs, and was eventually elected President of the Royal Society; along the way he wrote poetry and helped a blacksmith's son, Michael Faraday, to become Britain's most famous physicist of the Victorian era.

When Darwin embarked for South America, the word 'scientist' had not even been invented, and it was not widely accepted until the early twentieth century. Originally devised during a fiery debate involving Samuel Taylor Coleridge,

'scientist' was a reviled term which roused the fury of Victorian pedants, but somehow survived while etymologically preferable competitors such as sciencer, scientiate and scientman faded away.

Neither Darwin nor Faraday ever described themselves as scientists.

Holmes ties together the disparate characters in his book with Joseph Banks, the self-funding botanist on Cook's Endeavour who spent over forty years of his life as President of the Royal Society. After ensconcing himself with his wife and eccentric sister in his Soho house - from whence, writes Holmes, 'his gaze swept steadily round the globe like some vast, enquiring lighthouse beam' - the increasingly portly and gout-ridden Banks never again sailed the globe but promoted the careers of younger scientific adventurers. Holmes's Romantic visionaries intersect with those in another splendid collective biography, Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men, but he has devised a different yet equally effective structure for marshalling simultaneous events into sequential pages. Rather than organising his material by scientific theme, Holmes reinforces his plea for restoring individuality to science's history by focusing on Banks and two of his protégés, Herschel and Davy, telling their lives as serial yet interwoven narratives. In between describing these 'international stars, the three scientific knights', Holmes allows himself some fascinating digressions into contemporary affairs, including Mungo Park's exploits in Africa, the symbolism of Frankenstein, and the first balloon flights (unimaginatively downplayed by Banks as 'a counterpoise to Absolute Gravity' that would make carts easier to move).

For Holmes, the 'Age of Wonder' was a time of revolution, a historical moment of transition when sober Enlightenment rationality was transformed by Romantic excitement and political upheaval. But science can also be told as a tale of continuity rather than of abrupt change. As Holmes himself points out in a footnote, the sense of wonder was not restricted to the Romantic age: in 1665, when Robert Hooke published his engravings of fleas, ants and cheese mould, Samuel Pepys was so enthralled that he stayed up all night to marvel at the glories of the newly revealed microscopic world. Close observation and reverence for nature are deemed to be hallmarks of Romanticism - itself a disputed category - but they also inspired Andreas Vesalius's anatomical drawings of the sixteenth century.

Holmes has cherry-picked the most colourful stories, but he does tell them extremely well. Newcomers to Davy's experiments with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) have an especially hilarious treat in store. Unlike those biographers who feel that every fact must go in - and dispatching several days of research into the recycling bin does hurt! - Holmes excels at condensing pages of detail in order to recreate the lived experiences of his travellers. You might almost believe that he had tried out for himself the unfamiliar and uncomfortable perspectives of his aerial observers:

Banks spent hours at the topgallant masthead, his large form crouched awkwardly in the crow's nest ... As [the balloonist] took off, there was the white sea of upturned faces in the city squares, swiftly reduced to tiny unrecognisable points.

This beautifully crafted book deserves all the praise it will undoubtedly attract. Well-researched and vividly written, The Age of Wonder will fascinate scientists and poets alike by revealing so evocatively the Romantic past they hold in common.

Patricia Fara's next book, 'Science: A Four-Thousand Year History', will be published in February by OUP. She is Senior Tutor of Clare College, Combridge.

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