Friday, May 07, 2010

Recent Reading: The Age of Wonder

by Richard Holmes

The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (Vintage)The Age of Wonder has a subtitle: "How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science". Which is accurate enough, although the terror only really shows in the chapter on Frankenstein, and maybe occasionally in the stuff about the discovery of the true scale of the universe.

Richard Holmes is a biographer by trade, and this is scientific history as biography. The spine of the narrative is formed by the life stories of two figures; Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) and his successor as the president of the Royal Society, Humphry Davy (1778-1829), around whom other stories twine in different chapters - with the Herschel family featuring in several of them. I'll admit that I learned an awful lot from this book; just for a start, I'd previously been aware of Banks mostly in connection to his contributions to the nomenclature of gardening, rather than for his status as the grand (ageing) man of British science over generations (or even for his activities as Coleridge's drug dealer), and of Davy as the inventor of the miners' safety lamp, which was certainly important but which rather neglects the stunning volume of work he did on the foundations of modern chemistry (the work which got the safety lamp project pushed his way, in fact). Blame the simplistic shorthand stories of British education in my schooldays, I guess.

Whether Holmes quite proves his stated thesis is another matter. His idea is that there was in Georgian Britain such a thing as "Romantic science", or perhaps more correctly a Romantic idea of science - science as the product of solitary geniuses, thirsting for knowledge at any cost, progressing by huge leaps at crucial "Eureka moments" and seducing that knowledge from the infinite mysteries of nature, but also objective and disinterested, willing to transmit their new knowledge to a wider public thanks to a new system of public lectures. The last part, though, seems to me to be the only place where "Romantic science" differs very clearly from the Enlightenment science of Newton and Descartes, although Holmes does trace the 18th century evolution of the myth of Newton's Eureka moment with the apple, and his story does culminate in the meeting where the word "scientist" was actually invented to replace the older "natural philosopher", retroactively fitting the likes of Newton with a new label. He might also have traced the relationship between British science and that of other European nations in more detail, but to be fair, the book has quite enough to talk about as it is.

But whatever. Holmes tells a good story, and reading more around the subject might well reinforce his case. Meanwhile, he draws an interesting picture of the "second scientific revolution" (as identified by Coleridge in 1819 - Coleridge is an important figure throughout this story). The primary sciences in this revolution were astronomy and chemistry, with the first largely driven by the methodical brilliance of William Herschel, an expatriate German musician discovered by chance making solitary observations on the back streets of Bath (I said that Holmes has a great story to tell). Herschel, aided by his sister Caroline (who became Britain's first professional woman scientist, as Herschel became personal astronomer to the king), redefined the universe; his discovery of Uranus (the thing about him that I learned in my schooldays) seems almost incidental, although helpful to his fame.

But before we meet Herschel, we get to know Banks, a fabulously wealthy naturalist who landed the job of botanist on Captain Cook's voyage to Tahiti. Banks comes across as one of those casually amiable aristocratic types who treats everyone with equal amounts of casual charm, whatever their social position or cultural background, and seems to have helped the slightly more stiff-necked Cook deal with the Pacific islanders he met; one ends up wondering if Cook would have survived his last voyage if Banks had been along to moderate his attitudes, instead of being kept off the ship by political chicanery in the Admiralty. (This is a handy book for devotees of the conspiratorial model of history, although it makes no deliberate efforts to support such silliness; fellow roleplaying gamers of my vintage will understand if I re-title it "When Void Seekers Ruled the Earth".) Instead, Banks became the patron of the new scientific movement, although his aristocratically conservative instincts maybe hardened into something less helpful as he aged. Indeed, the story of British science in the period emerges as one of older organisations growing sclerotic and being replaced by dynamic new groupings, as the Royal Society is followed by the Royal Institution, and that then leaves a gap to be filled by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. All very British.

Where the book maybe seems a little weak is in the actual science; Holmes comes across as having done the research and taken good advice, but it's hard to avoid the feeling that he's more interested in the people than in their work, occasionally digressing onto the lives of the Romantic poets with variable amounts of relevance, and he fails to really tackle more complex subjects in any detail; his explanation of Fraunhofer lines, for example, is limited to a footnote, where he calls them "similar to a supermarket barcode". Nor does he seem to understand why scientists get so irritated by Coleridge's bizarrely muddle-headed comments about mind being passive in Newton's "system", and one Shakespeare or Milton thus being equal to 500 Newtons. He also wanders off into specific subjects that barely qualify as "science" at all, although they were of some interest to scientists and to the Romantic poets; fortunately, these make for interesting chapters. One involves Mungo Park, an early explorer in central Africa who was to some extent backed by the old globe-trotter Banks, and who did appeal to Romantic poets; another, which I confess to finding sometimes hilarious, is the ballooning craze of the late 18th century. Lighter-than-air flight was actually invented by the French, but the British caught on fairly quickly (and told themselves that some of the chemistry involved was invented by Britons, so it was fairly British anyway, even if one of the pioneers in this country had the poor taste to be Italian); this being the Georgian era, early developments naturally included attempts to invent the Mile High Club, while more serious pioneers struggled to convince themselves that there were in fact reliable winds in any direction one might want at different altitudes, so given a bit more research, this technology could actually be made useful... Holmes actually misses an analogy which hit me while I was reading this chapter, between ballooning then and the manned space program today; ballooning involved new gadgets, public showing-off, and worries about national prestige and military applications, was basically about applied technologies but involved various scientists attempting to argue that it was all about serious scientific research, was a little bit too dangerous for comfort, and faded out rather after a few years as early promise came to little.

But the book begins and ends with sea voyages that facilitated vastly important biological research; at the start is Banks, vastly expanding the knowledge of European biology and returning a hero and a major public figure; at the end, as John Herschel dismantles his father's great forty-foot telescope (ending the age when Slough was a global centre of astronomical research) and young scientific radicals like Charles Babbage chafe against the Romantic establishment, a relatively obscure young enthusiast lands a job on HMS Beagle - and returns with ideas so dangerous that he doesn't dare publish them for decades. But Darwin's long-drawn-out Eureka Moment is a story that's been told well before, and largely lies outside the scope of Holmes's book. What is does show, and fascinatingly, is how the Georgians invented modernity, in this as in other ways - and then weren't quite sure what to do with it. It was left to their heirs to sort out that little matter.

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