The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science 
by Richard Holmes.
HarperPress, 380 pp., £9.99, September 2009, 978 0 00 714953 7
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They had heard that we were great Philosophers, and expected much from us, one of the first questions that they askd was, when it would thunder.

Joseph Banks, The ‘Endeavour’ Journal

Richard Holmes describes The Age of Wonder as a ‘relay race of scientific stories’ about the explosion of exploration and scientific achievement in England between two celebrated voyages, Captain James Cook’s first circumnavigation of the world in the Endeavour in the late 1760s and Charles Darwin’s expedition to the Galapagos in the 1830s. William and Caroline Herschel’s advances in astronomy and Humphry Davy’s in chemistry dominate both Holmes’s history and the period itself, but Holmes is interested too in John Herschel, William’s son, who nearly became a lawyer instead of the founder of the Astronomical Society; in Nevil Maskelyne, the astronomer royal at the Greenwich Observatory; in Mungo Park, the African explorer and the first European to reach the Niger; in William Lawrence, the surgeon who took on the Vitalists; in Vincent Lunardi, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, John Jeffries, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and James Sadler, the balloonists; in King George III, who loved telescopes and music and balloons; in Thomas Beddoes, the doctor, and his Pneumatic Institute, and his wife, Anna; in Michael Faraday, the physicist; in Charles Babbage, the mathematician and inventor of the difference engine; in Coleridge, Southey, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Byron; in Mary Shelley, Frankenstein’s monster’s creator; in everyone’s connections and hobbies and miseries and follies; and in Joseph Banks, who kept a friendly eye on as many of them as he could during his long tenure as president of the Royal Society.

Most of all, perhaps, Holmes is interested in the fact that the stories of these people and their doings are such a treat. Those of us who spent our childhoods reading about the elements, the character of the neutrino and the race to describe the structure of DNA may take this for granted, but we ought not to, for the availability of children’s books on such subjects depends on the existence of a culture of popular interest in science, something Holmes contends came into being during the period he describes. In England popular celebration focused on the growing achievements of the nation’s explorers and scientists as giving proof of the natural superiority of Britain to all other countries (especially France, against the threat of whose fantasised revolutionary balloon-lofted troops it might be necessary to launch counter-balloons). There was no shame attached to being or having been an amateur: what else had Herschel been, with his homemade telescope, or Faraday, the blacksmith’s son who came to science by way of Jane Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry (a primer addressed ‘to the public, and more particularly to the female sex’), and whose ‘chief recommendations’ in Davy’s eyes, when he wanted a lab assistant, were ‘punctuality, neatness and sobriety’? An older Davy could sneer that Banks ‘had not much reading, and no information’, but Banks, his predecessor at the Royal Society, had done so much to encourage promising amateurs – including, long before, Davy himself. Davy was proud of the crowds who came to hear his brilliantly lucid explanations of ‘electro-chemical analysis’ and to watch him ignite a diamond with sunlight drawn through a glass. Holmes is describing a state of affairs in which scientists, poets, fine ladies and provincial mechanics, united in wonder at marvellous discoveries, nevertheless simultaneously believed in the figure of the eureka-crying intellectual adventurer, ‘the dazzling idea of the solitary scientific “genius”, thirsting and reckless for knowledge, for its own sake and perhaps at any cost’. In doing all this, of course, he is also describing what created the conditions of possibility for his own book’s popular success.

Holmes is admirably lucid in his presentation of the state of astronomy when the Herschels began to watch the skies. The map of the heavens had hardly changed in the past century and, believing the universe to be both essentially static and well understood, even the most eminent astronomers felt the stars not to be worth inconveniently much attention. (Before the Herschels’ discoveries, Nevil Maskelyne had been keeping track of only 31.) William Herschel, an immigrant musician from Hanover, exploded this complacency. Using reflecting telescopes he made himself (alone at first, but, after his sister Caroline had arrived to live with him, with her aid), he determined that the Pole Star was not one star but two; discovered Uranus, the first addition to the known planets since the time of Ptolemy; showed our solar system (now, with Uranus, understood to be twice as big as had been thought) to be located not at the fixed centre of the universe but somewhere within a spiral galaxy outside which other galaxies stretched, vast and unimaginably distant, forming and dying, their light, as it reached Earth, ancient, evidence of stars long gone. Using smaller telescopes because they were easier for her to handle (she was a tiny woman, ‘a silent, resentful gnome’ who had been stunted in childhood by severe illness and neglect), Caroline became a comet hunter. Only 30 were known when she first began to sweep the heavens; she found eight more.

Holmes makes vivid the physical hardship this work involved. He describes the process of speculum-making, the casting in horse-dung moulds and the long polishing, which, once begun, could not be interrupted even briefly. He describes what the nights of watching were like, the two unable to communicate except by shouts or, eventually, by a speaking tube, coded rope-pulls and bells, because while William was high above on the observation platform, Caroline stayed below with star maps and astronomical clocks, recording his observations by the candlelight that had to be prevented from contaminating William’s view of the stars. Holmes describes too in moving detail the emotional hardship brother and especially sister endured, lonely and often bitter, though William found happiness in marriage and Caroline aged into pride and self-reliance.

Humphry Davy, the other central figure in this book, makes an equally powerful impression. Holmes sketches the state of chemistry at the time of Davy’s entrance to the field, reminding us how very recently Lavoisier had shown water to be not (as had been thought) one of four elements (along with earth, air and fire) but a compound of hydrogen and oxygen. Davy had investigated the administration of therapeutic gases (especially nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, to which he became addicted) at the Pneumatic Medical Institute in Bristol, established by the eccentric Thomas Beddoes in order to offer free medical care to the poor and to experiment with inhalable gases. Concluding that Beddoes’s research had no solid basis, Davy left Bristol, Beddoes, Beddoes’s wife, Anna (with whom he seems to have been adulterously involved), and the gases, whose anaesthetic potential he recognised but neglected to exploit. He moved to London, where he analysed chemical substances into their elements and presented hugely popular public lectures, especially on agricultural chemistry and electrochemical analysis, through which he discovered potassium and sodium. His later, brilliant work on the solution to the ‘fire-damp’ (methane) problem responsible for major coalmining disasters in 1812 and 1813 is neatly explained here. Holmes gives attention to Davy’s courtship of Jane Apreece – ‘You are my magnet (though you differ from a magnet in having no repulsive points)’ – though more to the failure of their marriage and his increasingly evident need for admiration and tendency towards betrayal. Another side of Davy’s character comes through in Holmes’s discussion of his writing, which encompassed lyric poetry in the style of a rather duller and more conventional Coleridge, speculative dialogues, and something that might almost be called science fiction.

Holmes shows his central and his peripheral subjects to have been connected to one another in intricate and sometimes improbable ways. They all felt the pull of other fashions of understanding the world. Herschel was attracted to botany, to whose cycles he compared the growth and decay of nebulae and star clusters; and the aeronauts were drawn towards an as yet unrecognised ecology, as they saw the Earth reveal itself beneath their ascent ‘as a giant organism, mysteriously patterned and unfolding, like a living creature’. They had ideas about the possible uses of balloons: Banks wondered whether they might be used to lighten the strain on horse-pulled wagons; William Herschel thought they might provide possible observation platforms for telescopes; Joseph Montgolfier considered military applications; they gave Beddoes a model for his therapeutic gas bags; and they made everyone think about the weather.

They paralleled one another in their thoughts and their interests; they paralleled the poets too. Holmes notes the innumerable threads that connected the scientists to their literary peers. Coleridge induced Banks to supply him with new drugs. Byron visited Herschel and listened to a report of a vivisection at the Royal Society, staying to the end in order to protest the cruelty. Shelley (who loved balloons) thought of Park – or, if not of Park himself, then of what Park represented – when he wrote Alastor. Keats thought of Herschel when he wrote his sonnet on Chapman’s Homer and registered in his swimming planet the way convection currents in the sky ‘give objects the appearance of being seen through a rippling water surface’. Coleridge may have been thinking in his ‘One Life’ texts (with their vision of cosmic unity) about Davy’s carbon cycle. Davy later helped him with his preparations to give a lecture on poetry and the imagination at the Royal Institution (‘Davy’s most dangerous experiment’, Holmes remarks). Davy met Godwin and Lamb through Coleridge, and climbed Helvellyn with Southey, Scott and Wordsworth. Mary Shelley absorbed the Vitalism debate into Frankenstein, writing into her fiction Priestley, Cavendish, Aldini, Lawrence, Davy and Johann Wilhelm Ritter (a physiologist in Jena who seems to have attempted to raise the dead by means of electrical shocks). When, in uproarious after-dinner company with Wordsworth, Lamb and the painter Benjamin Haydon, Keats mocked Newton as having ‘destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to a prism’, Holmes tells us he didn’t really mean it.

What we think of as the science/literature boundary was permeable in both directions. William Herschel, an admirer of Milton, turned Paradise Lost into an oratorio. In his ‘Endeavour’ Journal, Banks composed what Holmes describes as ‘one of the great unfinished masterpieces of Romanticism’, and compares it, improbably, to ‘Kubla Khan’. And Davy – whose poetic abilities Southey rated so highly that he invited him to collaborate on the writing of an epic poem – wrote lyrics and fictions and meditations and dialogues all his life. The last of his literary works, Consolations in Travel, or The Last Days of a Philosopher, a confection of science fiction, autobiography, theories about the Life Principle, speculation about the future, stories about ghosts and tales of space travel to the monad of Newton (living on one of the outer planets), Holmes admires as ‘one of the most extraordinary prose books of the late Romantic period’.

Holmes is subtly insistent that his subjects might easily have ended up with very different lives, that a measure of accident was responsible for the particularity of their achievements or for their coming to notice. Had trees blocking his view of the moon not forced him one evening to move his telescope out into the street, where it drew the notice of a passing member of the Bath Philosophical Society, William Herschel would likely have remained a musician and a music teacher; had she not felt she owed her brother help for his having rescued her from their malevolent mother in Hanover, Caroline Herschel would have become a concert singer. Had there been no Gypsies in the country lanes around his father’s lands to teach him how to identify herbs, Joseph Banks might never have learned to love botany and so might never have joined the Endeavour, or started his great collection, but settled into the sedate life of a wealthy landowner. Without a seductive and precariously married Anna Beddoes to run away from, Humphry Davy could have stayed in Bristol for ever, inhaling nitrous oxide and inspiring rumours of what he did to the women he invited to try it with him.

Holmes’s reminder of how easily things might have turned out otherwise for his subjects raises questions about why we care who they were. Had Wordsworth not written ‘Tintern Abbey’ then ‘Tintern Abbey’ would remain unwritten. But Uranus would continue to exist, indifferently discoverable, even if Herschel had never been born; somebody else would have spotted it eventually. Perhaps, then, the name of the discoverer ought not to matter to anyone but the discoverer himself. Yet how intensely it mattered to Herschel! He himself was outraged by the notion that there was something accidental about his discovery of the planet (some astronomers attributed it to beginner’s luck). He felt the discovery belonged to him in the deepest way: ‘Let me but get at it again!’ he wrote to his sister. ‘I will make such telescopes & see such things – that is, I will endeavour to do so.’ (Davy felt an analogous possessiveness about the discovery of iodine and the invention of the safety lamp, but he was not alone in his possessiveness, and his claims were met with doubt and even enmity.) And it matters to us too. We insist on knowing not just who wrote ‘Tintern Abbey’ (and what his relationship with his sister was) but also who discovered Uranus (and, as Holmes points out, what his relationship with his sister was, too).

Holmes is as interested in who his subjects were, and what it felt like to be who they were and do what they did, as he is in what they did. He is interested even when the feeling had apparently nothing to do with the doing. ‘You were silly like us,’ Holmes seems almost to murmur. Banks, the Herschels, Park and Davy would surely have been figures of interest to us even had they not gone to Tahiti or found Uranus or travelled to Timbuktu or discovered iodine. Their wonder, extravagantly and voraciously and inconveniently and foolishly and sometimes dangerously pursued, called forth wonders, or occasionally their simulacra. Sometimes they discovered the emptiness of these illusions themselves, as when, watching Uranus as it receded from his eye, before he knew what it was, William Herschel saw it grow – thrillingly! – larger before his telescopic gaze. This impossible aspect of approach, Holmes surmises, was ‘the product of his growing concentration and excitement’.

Just as often their illusions persisted, or gave way only before new and stranger ones. Herschel was convinced not merely that the rest of the solar system and probably the rest of the universe was inhabited (a reasonable enough belief) but also that he had seen the moon’s forests and that its craters were solar-powered cities; the sun too was inhabited by beings who lived in its cool and solid interior. The invisible extraterrestrial beings Davy believed in, living among stars whose luminous intent was to enable us to gaze at them, controlled our fates. There were other stranger delusions as well, such as Davy’s recurrent hallucinations during a fever of ‘a beautiful, tender, unknown woman who nursed him, held him and had “intellectual conversations” with him’: ‘This spirit of my vision had brown hair, blue eyes and a bright rosy complexion, and was, as far as I can recollect, unlike any of the amatory forms which in early youth had so often haunted my imagination.’ His obsessive insistence, then and later, on the reality of these hallucinations is unnerving. This is how Holmes reports it:

Davy would claim that he actually met this ‘visionary female’ ten years later, in 1818, ‘during my travels in Illyria’. She was then ‘a very blooming and graceful maiden of 14 or 15 years old’. Finally he would meet her a third time, ten years later still, in 1827-28, when she was in her mid-twenties and he was stoically enduring what turned out to be his last illness.

He may even have lived with her, though Holmes wonders whether this might have been merely ‘the fantasy of a dying man’.

Holmes shows again and again how perilously his discoverers subjected themselves to the requirements of their interests. The telescopes, the balloons, the gases and chemical experiments were a constant menace to their users. The expeditions were long passages of disaster. When, after his three months on Tahiti, Banks resumed his voyaging, he and his crew endured two very hard years: shipwreck, illness and many deaths, including those of the Tahitians they were carrying to England with them, a man and his son, whom Banks regarded, a little ambiguously, as his friends and trophies. On his first exploration of the Niger, Mungo Park (named, appropriately enough, for a martyred saint) suffered malaria, repeated robbery, imprisonment, the loss of his servant and his interpreter and his horse and finally indeed everything except his trousers and his boots; and still he managed not to see Timbuktu. Holmes describes his ‘extraordinary physical courage combined with a patience amounting to almost suicidal passivity’. The sight of the Niger River before him at last filled Park with wonder; so did the sight of a small patch of moss at his feet; so did the fact that he had not died yet. On his return to Africa some years later, more weightily supplied and more imperially encumbered and so with more to lose, he lost it all. Still there remained a son. The son went into Africa seeking his lost father and vanished.

The British public loved it all, the more sentimental and sensational the better. Herschel’s 40-foot telescope, the one with the three half-ton reflectors, was written up in a popular magazine as one of the Wonders of the World, and schoolboys (Keats among them) played at imitating the solar system, a ‘schoolboy universe – complete with straying comets’. Davy’s lectures on chemistry were so successful that to accommodate the crush (many of them women, and many of them bearing Valentines and love notes) Albemarle Street was converted into a one-way street, the first in the city. The song a little group of village women had sung to lull Park to sleep one desolate evening after they had taken him in and fed him (‘The winds roared, and the rain fell. The poor white man, faint and weary, came and sat under our tree. He has no mother to bring him milk; no wife to grind his corn. Chorus: Let us pity the poor white man, no mother has he …’) – a song which, Holmes observes, had ‘reversed all Park’s assumptions about his travels in Africa’ – became a hit, rewritten by the duchess of Devonshire to correct its balance of pity and power, set to music by an Italian composer, and played all over fashionable London. Drury Lane turned Tahiti into pantomime, with daring glimpses of flesh; and when a Tahitian Review opened, it featured ‘a dozen beautiful Nymphs … [who] performed the celebrated rites of Venus, as practised at Tahiti’, nude and available for what Holmes terms anthropological sampling.

It was in the ballooning craze – as much a French phenomenon as a British one, begun by a paper manufacturer who thought a huge levitating paper bag would be a splendid way to advertise his product – that the purposes of entertainment liberated themselves most spectacularly from the more respectable purposes of science. Paper bags gave way to silk ones, hydrogen joined hot air, vents and ballast were added to control ascent and descent, together with aerial oars, but, again and again, when something went wrong with a balloon’s loft, the scientific instruments went overboard. The few scientists who dared go up wrote of their experience of strange stillness (‘I could hear myself living’) but rarely agreed to go up twice. The non-scientists (those who did not drop to their death) became popular heroes. One of the most prominent, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, the first person to cross the English Channel by air, receiving for that feat a royal pension and the freedom of the city of Paris, subsequently shed the pretence of being anything other than an entertainer, telling ever wilder tales of his adventures and sending up ‘flying violinists, female aerial acrobats and parachuting animals’ from his Balloon Academy in Vauxhall. Those whose wonder lifted them into the skies had become objects of wonder themselves.

Wonder is not reliably transitive, however. Holmes opens his book with an amusing anecdote about a chemistry experiment that went too well. He was 14, taking his first chemistry class, when he ‘successfully precipitated a single crystal of mineral salts’. He had heated a solution of some prescribed sort and left it to cool.

The next morning there it lay at the bottom of my carefully labelled test tube: a single beautiful crystal, the size of a flattened Fox’s Glacier Mint, a miniature ziggurat with a faint blue opalescence, propped up against the inside of the glass (too big to lie flat), monumental and mysterious to my eyes. No one else’s test tube held anything but a few feeble grains. I was triumphant, my scientific future assured.

But it turned out that the chemistry master did not believe me. The crystal was too big to be true. He said (not at all unkindly) that I had obviously faked it, and slipped a piece of coloured glass into the test tube instead. It was quite a good joke.

The Age of Wonder is not a book one ought to rely on for perfect factual accuracy. The footnotes, so reassuring in their mass, can one by one leave the curious reader stranded. Dates, victims presumably of transcription errors, are sometimes out by entire centuries. And sources sometimes fail to say what Holmes leads us to expect they will. The book is huge, the scholarship behind it profound, the integration – the smooth solution – of disparate hard fields miraculous. Both the whole and its innumerable details are luminous, crystalline. To expect every letter in it to be precisely what it would wish to be before the eye of an omniscient judge would be unreasonable. But Holmes so spoils his readers that unreasonable is what one may become.

Very late in the narrative of Banks’s unhappy voyage home from Tahiti, Holmes presents him grieving and sick with ‘the pains of the Damned almost’. The deaths of so many of his friends and crew

had a devastating effect on his memories of the expedition. Finally, within sight of England, his surviving greyhound bitch, Lady, universally loved among the crew, was heard to howl out in the night. The next morning she was found flung across a chair in the cabin, still guarding Banks’s writing table, but dead.

Two weeks later Banks is in London, ‘shattered and disoriented’. I am disoriented too. It is the word ‘flung’, I think, that has done this to me. Someone – Banks himself, I think Holmes is suggesting, Banks destroyed by grief – has killed the poor dog. He must by the end of the voyage have been altogether unhinged. Is that not what Holmes’s ‘shattered and disoriented’ means to tell us? Yet when I go looking for the source in Banks’s own journal, this is how it reads:

My Bitch Lady was found dead in my Cabbin laying upon a stool on which she generaly slept. She had been remarkably well for some days; in the night she shreikd out very loud so that we who slept in the great Cabbin heard her, but becoming quiet immediately no one regarded it. Whatever disease was the cause of her death it was the most sudden that ever came under my Observation. Many Shearwaters were seen about the ship.

It is a relief to find no ‘flung’, nor any guarding of the writing table, but rather evidence that Banks was not so distraught that he was unable to note the presence of birds. Nevertheless, a very slight disorientation persists.

After his Endeavour voyage, Banks made but one more expedition, and that a minor one, to the Hebrides and Iceland. (He had planned to sail again to the Pacific, but the ambition and expense of his preparations alarmed the Admiralty, which dumped his equipment on the quay and informed him its ships were not for his use.) Returned to London, installed in the Royal Society, and there ‘marooned by his gout’, he accommodated himself merely to inquiring after news of promising young explorers, inviting them to breakfast and then, if they did well, connecting them with those who might further their projects, a discoverer of discoverers, ‘a scientific Virgil’ himself shut out from heaven.

What The Age of Wonder narrates is also, Holmes reminds us, what Banks himself would have been learning. An ‘all-seeing eye’, ‘the sceptical, all-weather eye of Banks’, peers out of successive chapters; his gaze sweeps ‘steadily round the globe like some vast, inquiring lighthouse beam’. It is tempting to see this eye as that of Holmes’s reader, that armchair traveller whose silent discoveries occur in the passage between one page and another; but it is impossible not to think too that Holmes recognises in this eye a mocking reflection of his own.

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