Balloons and Counter-Balloons

Susan Eilenberg

  • 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, ISBN 978 0 00 714953 7

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.

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