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Shocking Developments

How scientific discoveries in the Romantic era set diverging paths for faith and reason

by Rick Mullin
August 31, 2009 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 87, ISSUE 35

THE AGE OF WONDER: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science,
by Richard Holmes, Pantheon Books, 2009, 552 pages, $40 hardcover (ISBN 978-0-375-42222-5)
by Richard Holmes, Pantheon Books, 2009, 552 pages, $40 hardcover (ISBN 978-0-375-42222-5)

The English romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge's declaration that he intended to "attack Chemistry, like a Shark" was not a poet's vow to destroy some math-spewing mortal enemy. Coleridge meant that he intended to immerse himself in the natural studies that fascinated, indeed obsessed, his poet friend Humphry Davy, who also happened to be Britain's preeminent chemist at the turn of the 19th century. The two shared quality time in the Lake District and the lecture hall.

In his new book, "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science," author Richard Holmes shows us a web of such encounters between the great minds of what is generally referred to as the Romantic era in English literature, a period spanning the last quarter of the 18th century and the first quarter of the 19th century. In doing so, he makes a case for a romanticism that stretches well beyond the poetry of Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, John Keats, and Robert Southey to include the discoveries of natural philosophers (the word "scientist" had not yet been invented) such as Davy, the botanist Joseph Banks, and the astronomer William Herschel.

Holmes also illustrates how discoveries in the Romantic era would come to challenge the marriage of poetry and science and set diverging paths for faith and reason, a parting that complicates contemporary intellectual discourse.

Coleridge called this period the second scientific revolution. It was an era of dynamic advances following on the works of Galileo and England's scientific forebearer, Sir Isaac Newton. As the book's subtitle suggests, it was a time when nature opened up in such a way that the botanist, the chemist, the balloonist, and the world traveler dealt with severe shocks to their understanding of their place in the universe. Holmes gives a palpable sense of vertigo as he takes the reader along for a look into the telescope of Herschel, who in 1781 discovered Uranus, thereby nearly doubling the size of the solar system. Holmes's descriptions of the first aerial view of Earth obtained by balloonists in France and England convey a similar thrill. Holmes sets the stage with the exploration of Tahiti by Banks, who sailed with Captain James Cook aboard The Endeavor in 1769. Beauty and terror indeed.

Until the late 1700s, science could be described as a series of shocking discoveries that ran counter to intuitive common sense, Holmes notes. The most obvious examples are proof that Earth is round; that the sun and planets do not revolve around Earth; and that earth, air, fire, and water are not basic elements. The book illustrates how the accelerated enthusiasm for an emerging modern approach to science posed an increased threat to Western thought and religion in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. If, for example, the universe is made up of galaxies of stars and innumerable planets, then surely life must exist on those planets. From a Christian perspective, could God have sent his only son to redeem the souls of life forms on each of those planets?

Holmes also illustrates how the role of women in science became increasingly important with the emergence of figures such as Caroline Herschel—the dedicated sister of William who became a serious astronomer and discoverer of comets—and the physicist Mary Somerville. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the wife of the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and daughter of protofeminist Mary Wollstonecraft, must also be counted here. Her 1818 novel, "Frankenstein," endures as an intriguing examination of the role of the scientist and the terrors of science, one culled from a montage of scientists Mary Shelley knew personally.

Credit: Pantheon Books
Portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Peter Vandyke.
Credit: Pantheon Books
Portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Peter Vandyke.

The most purely romantic element of the era may be the portrait of the individual scientist on the journey of discovery. Holmes cites Thomas Söderqvist, who in his book, "The Poetics of Scientific Biography," describes three themes for this journey: the Newtonian lone genius, the eureka moment, and the Frankenstein nightmare. The last, a vision of scientific progress as a disguised form of destruction, was extant in the literary camps of the time. To wit, novelist and essayist Horace Walpole's commentary on ballooning: "Well! I hope these new mechanic meteors will prove only playthings for the learned and idle, and not be converted into new engines of destruction to the human race—as is so often the case of refinements of discoveries in Science."

But lines between the literary and scientific camps were hard to draw, Holmes writes. Percy Bysshe Shelley, expelled from Oxford over his espousal of atheistic views in writings such as "The Necessity of Atheism," supported his views with science. Meanwhile, Coleridge and others wrestled with new discoveries and incorporated them into their theology. If poet and artist William Blake pointedly mocked the pretentions of scientists—an illustration he drew for his poem "An Island on the Moon" features a rickety ladder against the moon with the caption: "I want, I want."—it must be remembered that Blake was ultimately more of a mystic than a romantic.

But in depicting the growing tension between faith and reason in the Romantic age, Holmes shows that many of the great discoverers shared more with Catholic philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas than they did with Galileo. Herschel , who discovered deep space, would speak of God as the "unknowable must-exist." Davy, whose Frankenstein-like mix of science-based altruism and obsessive hunger for personal fame compromised his relationship with Coleridge and may have destroyed his marriage, said late in his career that "faith is in all things superior to reason."

Holmes, the biographer of Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley, has a firm grip on science in "The Age of Wonder" and a fluency in drawing the connections to literature and religion. Typical moments include his mention of a sign on an electrical condenser employed by Andrew Crosse, an eccentric friend of Davy's who claimed his "philosophical apparatus" could generate spontaneous life forms. It read "Noli Mi Tangere," a phrase meaning "don't touch me" lifted from the Gospels. They are the risen Christ's first words to Mary Magdalene.

Holmes also gives vivid vignettes depicting the brilliance, eccentricity, and dogged work of pioneers such as the Herschels. He describes them building an enormous 40-foot telescope and sweeping the winter skies at night, rubbing onions on their hands to keep them warm. Banks's time in Tahiti is vividly described, establishing the character of Banks, the future president of the Royal Society, as a kind of guardian angel to various geniuses. His efforts to translate science to the public, more-or-less a lost art in contemporary circles of hard science, are duly noted.

"The Age of Wonder" ends as it starts, with a literal voyage of discovery—Charles Darwin's 1831 trip to South America aboard The Beagle. Darwin sailed out of the shadow of his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, a botanist, evolution theorist, and poet whose poem "Botanical Garden" celebrated the celestial discoveries of the Herschels. More important, Darwin sailed into a world that had come to grips with the ideas of deep space and deep time, the latter developed by Darwin's friend, the geologist Sir Charles Lyell. These two theoretical dimensions are basic to Darwin's theory of natural selection.

Meanwhile, science sailed from the Age of Wonder to what the English essayist Thomas Carlyle called the Age of Machinery. Carlyle's 1829 tract, "Signs of the Times," published in the Edinburgh Review, attacked what he called the "dehumanizing effects of utilitarianism, statistics and the 'science of mechanics,' " writes Holmes. Carlyle sets the world of the laboratory firmly against the world of art, poetry, and religion. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection follows as a new Book of Genesis for the laboratory that, arguably, makes the philosophical mainstays of Natural Theology and the teleological notions of intelligent design "worse than untrue," Holmes writes. Darwin, to some, makes such explanations for creation "unnecessary."

Holmes's near total concentration on scientific developments in England is appropriate, though he does not ignore developments in Germany, France, or even in the fledgling U.S.—Ben Franklin makes several cameo appearances. England, the great world empire, was the center of scientific activity, and preserving this was the source of great anxiety at the Royal Society.

Credit: Pantheon Books
Portrait of Humphry Davy by Thomas Phillips.
Credit: Pantheon Books
Portrait of Humphry Davy by Thomas Phillips.

England also supplies the author with his metaphor—romanticism, the echo of which still rings loudly today, welcome or not. Holmes notes a conference entitled "The Idea of Creativity in Science and the Humanities" at the Royal Society in November 2000, at which Coleridge's assertion that "the souls of 500 Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakespeare or Milton" elicited the following outburst from an unnamed scientist: "That is complete and utter balls. ... We don't have to put up with such rubbish." Feathers were smoothed, Holmes notes, when it was suggested that Coleridge was only making a mathematical joke on the impossibility of computing the content of souls.

Newton, in fact, emerges intact as the central metaphor for the man of science in "The Age of Wonder." The self-described boy on the beach picking up shells before a vast ocean of truth has morphed considerably, however. Holmes points to the famous statue of the great man by Eduardo Paolozzi installed outside the British Library in 1995. A colossal figure, Paolozzi's Newton is based on a drawing by Blake and, Holmes points out, evokes both Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Rodin's "Thinker." Seated on a plinth and leaning forward to measure the ground with a compass, Paolozzi's Newton evokes a mixture of the enlightened and the satanic.

One might find hope in the book in another romantic mixture of opposites—the continual dialectic between skeptical enquiry and the sense of inexplicable mystery found both in the lectures of Davy and in the American physicist Richard Feynman's "The Meaning of It All," published posthumously in 1999. Feynman, though not a religious man, believed, Holmes says, that if either of these perspectives on nature gets the upper hand, true science would be lost.

Rick Mullin covers the fine chemicals industry for C&EN.



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