THE AGE OF WONDER: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. Richard Holmes. xxii + 552 pp. Pantheon Books, 2008; first U.S. edition 2009. $40 cloth, $17.95 paper.
The Age of Wonder, which in 2009 won the prestigious Royal Society Prize for Science Books, deals with British natural philosophers—those who studied the workings of nature—from the time of James Cook’s first expedition around the world, begun in 1768, to young Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, begun in 1831. Author Richard Holmes, an expert on the British romantic poets, draws on such themes as the heroic quest, the solitary genius, the eureka moment and Nature infinite and mysterious to characterize the natural philosophers of the age. But above all Holmes wishes to highlight the sense of wonder that they all shared. This is what marks them as romantic in his view.
That, of course, raises a bit of a problem. After all, in which age of science would wonder not be front and center? Has the image of science as a disinterested practical enterprise ever accurately captured what scientists do?
When it comes to choosing a career in science, and to the motivation that drives individuals to explore, wonder has always been present. True, it can erode—a modern astrophysicist or paleontologist may have been drawn to study the skies or dinosaurs by the larger sense of mystery each conveys, but advanced work in these areas also has a dreary, computational side, which demands the majority of a researcher’s daily attention. Nonetheless, scientists are almost by definition wonderers.
Still, there was something different about the age Holmes has chosen to write about. On the continent, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the followers of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling consciously differentiated between their kind of science and that which had gone before. Scholars who have characterized this group’s scientific work as romantic science have focused on its members’ opposition to mechanism—sometimes expressed in opposition to Isaac Newton—because of its objectification of nature. For the romantic Naturphilosophen, nature was at bottom organism, not mechanism. They believed that science in theory and practice must reflect the characteristics of living things, including those that are self-conscious and rational. Although organism presumed mechanical interaction, it could not be defined by it; rather, scientific cognition had to involve the beautiful and the moral in addition to the rational. Schelling wanted, as he put it, “to give wings to physics.” Robert J. Richards has argued eloquently that such romantic assumptions influenced the science of many who came after, including such notables as Darwin and Ernst Haeckel.
Holmes does not explicitly go so far as to insist that the cognition of science entailed aesthetic and ethical dimensions for the individuals on whom he has chosen to focus—Humphry Davy, Joseph Banks, Mungo Park, and William and Caroline Herschel. Davy, a chemist and a poet, might muse that the perception of truth was as simple a feeling as the perception of beauty, but in the end he did not merge the two, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who was schooled on Schelling) hoped could be done. Davy did not convince the poet Robert Southey that he brought an artistic temperament into his science—Southey lamented that Davy’s experimental science in the end “always deadens the feelings.” But of all the figures in Holmes’s book, Davy, who conceived of himself as a genius, comes closest to being a truly romantic scientist.
Holmes has written a wonderfully engaging narrative—he himself characterizes it as a piece of biographical storytelling that seeks to depict the impact of science on the heart as well as the mind. There is never a dull moment, from Joseph Banks’s exploits (sexual and otherwise) among the natives of Tahiti to the exciting (and sometimes disastrous) details of balloon flights in France and England. A chapter is given to Mungo Park’s travels to Africa, which Banks sanctioned as President of the Royal Society and more pointedly as a founding member of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Inland Districts of Africa. Park’s first trip, in the mid 1790s, failed to achieve its objective of locating the semi-legendary city of Timbuctoo, and Park nearly perished when set upon by Moorish bandits, who robbed him of everything he had. Left 500 miles from the nearest European settlement with only trousers, boots and his hat, Park was about to give up and die when he caught sight of a tiny flowering moss. His wonder at its beauty in the midst of his despair saved him—he resolved that the God who had made such a thing would not allow him, a creature made in God’s image, to perish. (He did, however, perish during his second journey to Africa in 1805.)
The lives of William and Caroline Herschel, as Holmes describes them, were not quite so exotic or daring. Nevertheless, his accounts of William’s escape to Britain and his and Caroline’s subsequent rise to prominence (through their joint effort in building telescopes and discovering new bodies in the heavens) are captivating. Astronomy, of course, opens up our imagination to the widest context in which we live our lives, and William’s notion of a developing universe in deep space and the possibility that some of the many new nebulae he was discovering might lie outside the Milky Way only deepened the sense of awe at humankind’s place in the grand scheme of things. Holmes gives two chapters to the Herschels, with a great deal of attention to Caroline, although he cites only William’s wonder at the “most beautiful order” of the natural world. Not surprisingly, William came to depict his signature discovery of the planet Uranus as the work of a solitary genius pursuing the mysterious moment of revelation.
Holmes gives most attention to Humphry Davy. Davy’s early friendships with Southey and Coleridge brought him into the circle of rising young romantic writers. Davy was preoccupied with his conception of himself and his need to achieve fame. The story of his early work on the effects of inhaling nitrous oxide shows Davy the empiricist, dispassionately and faithfully recording the data of his experience even when he felt himself in danger from the experiment he was carrying out on himself. His move to London and his great success as a public lecturer reinforced his notion of self-importance—he saw himself as the Newton of chemistry. His exploits in the new science of electrochemistry, which allowed him to identify the elements sodium and potassium, confirmed to those of his age that here indeed was a young genius.
Holmes covers the well-known events of Davy’s life with accuracy and verve. His rise to social prominence and his marriage to the wealthy Jane Apreece, his always testy and sometimes hostile relations with his young assistant, Michael Faraday, and his work on the safety lamp for miners, including the disputes it provoked, are retold here in detail and in entertaining fashion. Holmes depicts Davy as he approached his premature death (at age 51) as the pilgrim scientist on his last journey. In his final work—Consolations in Travel, or the Last Days of a Philosopher—Davy turned his mind to the eternal, portraying science (in particular chemistry) as a means of eavesdropping on nature at work. Here Davy gave vent to the mystical longings of a dying man. Georges Cuvier said of the Consolations in Travel that it contained “the last words of a dying Plato.”
Holmes ends his own book with a look at the next generation, the young Turks who wanted to challenge the established social structure of the scientific enterprise. The Age of Wonder might have lived on in the outlook of the young John Herschel, had the founding of the British Association in 1831 not changed the organization of science fundamentally. Science became increasingly professionalized, and its practitioners were dubbed scientists. William Whewell, who coined the new designation, lamented that the olden days, when the “learned” took on all branches of knowledge, were forever past. Science might still generate wonder, but now that it was filling a much larger social role it would also feel increased pressure to live up to greater expectations of propriety and usefulness.
Because The Age of Wonder is aimed at the general reader and is written in so engaging and informed a manner, it is a most welcome volume. I do not have many complaints. Some misconceptions are perpetuated—Alessandro Volta did not “disprove” Luigi Galvani’s animal electricity; indeed, experiments by Alexander von Humboldt and others showed that the source of electrical current could not be confined to contact between two metals alone—electricity is also stored in muscles. And not even Volta saw the battery as the deciding factor in his controversy with Galvani, as Holmes asserts. But such blemishes are few.
I believe Holmes would have enriched his message had he consulted the considerable work that historians of science have carried out both on scientific biography and on German romantic science (not that he should have included Germans in his study). The writings of scientific biographers such as Russell McCormmach, Laura Otis, Thomas Söderqvist and others might have given him insights into the methodological issues with which historians wrestle. Other writers (Richards, for example) have, like Holmes, explored the merits of seeking out the inner biography of those who celebrate the role of emotion in constructing our knowledge of nature as opposed to ignoring or even suppressing it; their work might have suggested to Holmes additional ways of emphasizing the message of hope that he sees in the lives and works of his wonderers.
Frederick Gregory is emeritus professor of history of science and European history at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He is the author of, among other books, Natural Science in Western Civilization (Houghton Mifflin, 2008).