x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Romantic science

Books Peter Terzian praises a new history of the second scientific revolution, an age when poets and empiricists got along.

Star bright: The astronomer William Herschel and his sister Caroline were two leading lights in the second scientific revolution.
Star bright: The astronomer William Herschel and his sister Caroline were two leading lights in the second scientific revolution.

Peter Terzian praises a new history of the second scientific revolution, an age when poets and empiricists got along.
The Age of Wonder Richard Holmes HarperPress Dh138
At the end of his virtuoso two-volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Richard Holmes looked back affectionately at the 15 years of research he had spent in his subject's "extraordinary presence". It's no surprise, then, that a decade later the biographer enjoys a brief reunion with the brilliant, troubled Romantic poet, who pops up as a minor hero in The Age of Wonder, Holmes's sweeping account of scientific discovery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Unlike his fellow poet Wordsworth, who wrote that "Our meddling intellect / Misshapes the beauteous forms of things," Coleridge believed that poetry and science could be complementary. He "did not accept any contradiction between the two modes of vision," writes Holmes. And it was most likely Coleridge who first defined the new wave of men and women engaged in teasing out the mysteries of the universe as the "second scientific revolution". (The first, during the 17th century, encompassed Newton's discovery of gravity and Descartes's mathematical breakthroughs.) Romantic Science, writes Holmes, was "a movement that grew out of 18th century Enlightenment rationalism, but largely transformed it, by bringing a new imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work." It was a period, in Holmes's telling, when budding scientists and brooding poets had remarkably common cause.

What patterns could be found in the shifting night skies? What did it look like on the other side of the world, and who lived there? Could man find a way to fly? Could the dead be brought back to life? What was life, anyway? These were imaginative as well as empirical questions. To solve them required inspiration and originality, the traits celebrated by Romantic writers and thinkers. The Romantic scientists bridled at the "purely mechanistic universe" described by Newtonian physics. Like their poetic counterparts, they believed in an "infinite, mysterious Nature". At a time when Coleridge and Wordsworth were revolutionising English verse by channelling the voices of working-class and rustic folk in their Lyrical Ballads, astronomers, chemists and inventors were making their discoveries accessible to a broad audience. (Writing about the craze for ballooning in the 1780s, Holmes wryly formulates that "chemistry plus showmanship equalled crowds plus wonder plus money.") An enthusiastic public elevated scientists to celebrity status, casting them as solitary geniuses questing for truth - the archetype of the Romantic hero.

The twin stars of Holmes's capacious narrative are the astronomer William Herschel, whose sighting of Uranus was the first planetary discovery in a thousand years, and the chemist Humphry Davy, who developed a safety lamp that prevented the methane gas explosions that regularly claimed the lives of coal miners. But the book's guiding spirit, its "scientific Virgil", is Joseph Banks, a young, energetic aristocrat who served as the official botanist on James Cook's 1769 Endeavour voyage to the South Pacific.

The Age of Wonder begins with a Tahitian idyll, as Cook's vessel docks on the island for three months to observe the Transit of Venus, a celestial phenomenon that allowed astronomers to establish the distance from the earth to the sun. While Cook took a cautious view of mingling with the Indians, the cool-headed and irrepressibly curious Banks made friends with the native community, revelling in its sexual openness. Meanwhile, he amassed an exhaustive collection of indigenous plant and animal specimens and kept a journal of Tahitian customs that pioneered a new kind of ethnography.

Nearly a decade after his return to London, Banks was elected president of the Royal Society, England's preeminent academy of science. One of his first acts of patronage was to foster the work of Herschel, a German-born musician and amateur astronomer then living in the English town of Bath with his younger sister Caroline. Tiny and scarred from a childhood case of smallpox, Caroline served as housekeeper to her single-minded brother. She was soon assisting his nightlong sessions of sky-watching in their back garden. William constructed his own reflector telescopes, which use concave mirrors to concentrate light; the process of making the mirrors involved hours of hand-polishing, during which Caroline would read to him and feed him.

William's discovery of Uranus in 1781 dramatically altered our understanding of the universe. The commonly held idea that the solar system was surrounded by a dome of fixed stars gave way to a new conception of deep space. The cosmos might be infinite. Banks helped Herschel win the financial support of King George III, and the brother and sister relocated near Windsor, where the astronomer built a 40-foot telescope. This spectacular device turned out to be something of a dud - over its first five years, Herschel only had 17 good nights of observations - but his theoretical work on the evolution of stars and the origins of the universe progressed. "The heavens," he wrote, "are now seen to resemble a luxuriant garden which contains the greatest variety of productions, in different flourishing beds." Galaxies are born; they mature, wither and die. (Our own, Herschel concluded, is on the wane.) The universe, he posited, would someday fold in upon itself in a "Big Crunch". These were startling ideas: Where was God in all of this? Meanwhile, the eagle-eyed Caroline, who had begun her own investigations of the heavens using a two-foot telescope that her brother made her, earned her own fame as a discoverer of comets. As Herschel himself remarked of his relationship to his sibling, "it was not always self-evident which was the planet and which was the moon."

If Herschel was solitary and obsessive, Humphry Davy was something of a publicity hound. Born to a working class family in the Cornish town of Penzance, he was largely self-taught. His love of chemistry, at this time a radical science that questioned the nature of the material world, was fostered while he was apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary. (He was also an amateur poet who became one of Coleridge's closest and most supportive friends.) Word of his early brilliance reached physician Thomas Beddoes, who hired Davy as an assistant at his newly launched Pneumatical Medical Institute in Bristol, where the sick could inhale various gases to cure their ailments. Of course, this turned out to be quackery. But while there Davy discovered that nitrous oxide could be used as "laughing gas" to dull the excruciating pain of anaesthetic-free surgery. In one of the book's funniest passages, Holmes describes Davy's brief addiction to the "thrillings" that inhaling the gas brought on. Soon, Davy was inviting his friends in the Bristol circle of intellectuals to experience the effects of laughing gas. "Davy has actually invented a new pleasure," wrote poet Robert Southey, "for which language has no name." As Holmes points out, however, Davy didn't go far enough in making medical claims for the gas - he never pursued its potential use to temporarily blot out consciousness.

Where he did succeed was in the invention of the "Davy Safety Lamp" in 1815. A lethal gas that emanated from newly opened coal seams, when mixed with candle flame, caused devastating explosions that frequently resulted in mass coal miner fatalities. Davy made the simple discovery that fire would not pass through a fine iron gauze; "fire-damp," or methane, could enter the lamp and ignite the wick, but the explosion stayed within the lamp, "like a bird in a cage," as Davy wrote. The lamp was put into use all over Great Britain and Europe, and made a strong case for the application of science to solving the problems of daily life.

Holmes breaks up his dual biographies of Herschel and Davy with interludes that draw in other heroes of Romantic science. Banks appears once again in the tale of Mungo Park, a young Scottish loner who was sent by the Royal Society on two voyages into the African interior. Park's search for an east-west trade route along the Niger River - and for the legendary city of Timbuktu - ended with his unexplained disappearance, and he became the prototype of the "essential Romantic explorer". The anxieties and fears wrought by so much scientific advancement - particularly surrounding "Vitalism", a field that involved the search for the mythical substance that composed the life force - were given expression in Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein. With her parable about a scientist who fashions a living, murderous creature from parts of corpses, Shelley (who wrote this book about life-giving while pregnant) imagined an extreme case of scientific ambition run amok and turned into a force for destruction.

Upon Banks' death in 1820, Davy became the next president of the Royal Society, but his tenure was less successful than his predecessor's. A new generation of scientists, including John Herschel, the astronomer's brilliant son and the beloved nephew of his aunt Caroline, found Davy vain and arrogant. The Society had become snobbish and conservative. An alternative organisation, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, sprouted up in the 1830s, drawing young scientists from industrial towns outside London. The ubiquitous Coleridge, now in his 60s and dying, held court at their third meeting, but the rising star of Victorian science, Charles Darwin, then sailing around the world on the Beagle, was unable to attend.

One of the many pleasures of The Age of Wonder is seeing characters from the biographer's past works return and interact with a new dramatis personae. Shelley, the subject of Holmes's first full-length biography, makes cameo appearances, as do the Wollstonecrafts, who figure in his travel narrative Footsteps; Humphry Davy will be familiar to readers of Holmes's life of Coleridge. Over a four-decade career, Holmes has become our greatest historian of English Romanticism, and he writes about its players and events, both signal and obscure, with a warm intimacy. (He also has an eye for the singular, amusing detail - two men performing an aerial striptease to lessen the ballast on the first cross-Channel balloon ride, or the Herschels throwing a garden party to show their royal patrons the work in progress of their giant telescope, with George III escorting the Archbishop of Canterbury on a walk through its tube, which lay on the grass.) The Age of Wonder is a masterful addition to his panoramic portrait of a remarkable age.
Peter Terzian has written about books for Bookforum, Newsday and the Los Angeles Times Book Review.