When Science & Poetry Were Friends

[ Wed. Aug. 12. 2009 ]
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Science Musuem, London/Bridgeman Art Library

The first balloon crossing of the English Channel, January 7, 1785; detail from an oil painting by E.W. Cocks, circa 1840

The Age of Wonder means the period of sixty years between 1770 and 1830, commonly called the Romantic Age. It is most clearly defined as an age of poetry. As every English schoolchild of my generation learned, the Romantic Age had three major poets, Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge, at the beginning, and three more major poets, Shelley and Keats and Byron, at the end. In literary style it is sharply different from the Classical Age before it (Dryden and Pope) and the Victorian Age after it (Tennyson and Browning). Looking at nature, Blake saw a vision of wildness:

Tyger, tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Byron saw a vision of darkness:

The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air….

During the same period there were great Romantic poets in other countries, Goethe and Schiller in Germany and Pushkin in Russia, but Richard Holmes writes only about the local scene in England.

Holmes is well known as a biographer. He has published biographies of Coleridge and Shelley and other literary heroes. But this book is primarily concerned with scientists rather than with poets. The central figures in the story are the botanist Joseph Banks, the chemists Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday, the astronomers William Herschel and his sister Caroline and son John, the medical doctors Erasmus Darwin and William Lawrence, and the explorers James Cook and Mungo Park. The scientists of that age were as Romantic as the poets. The scientific discoveries were as unexpected and intoxicating as the poems. Many of the poets were intensely interested in science, and many of the scientists in poetry.

The scientists and the poets belonged to a single culture and were in many cases personal friends. Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin and progenitor of many of Charles’s ideas, published his speculations about evolution in a book-length poem, The Botanic Garden, in 1791. Humphry Davy wrote poetry all his life and published much of it. Davy was a close friend of Coleridge, Shelley a close friend of Lawrence. The boundless prodigality of nature inspired scientists and poets with the same feelings of wonder. The Age of Wonder is popular history at its best, racy, readable, and well documented. The subtitle, “How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science,” accurately describes what happened.

Holmes presents the drama in ten scenes, each dominated by one or two of the leading characters. The first scene belongs to Joseph Banks, who sailed with Captain James Cook on the ship Endeavour. This was Cook’s first voyage around the world. One of the purposes of the expedition was to observe the transit of Venus across the disc of the sun on June 3, 1769, from the island of Tahiti in the South Pacific. The tracking of the transit from the Southern Hemisphere, in combination with similar observations made from Europe, would give astronomers more accurate knowledge of the distance of the earth from the sun. Banks was officially chief botanist of the expedition, but he quickly became more interested in the human inhabitants of the island than in the plants. The ship stayed for three months at Tahiti, and he spent most of the time, including the nights, ashore. During the nights he was not observing plants.

A wealthy young man accustomed to aristocratic privileges in England, Banks quickly made friends with the Tahitian queen Oborea, who assigned one of her personal servants, Otheothea, to take care of him. With the help of Otheothea and other good friends, he acquired some fluency in the Tahitian language and customs. His journal contains a Tahitian vocabulary and detailed descriptions of the people he came to know. When the time came to set up the astronomical instruments and observe the transit of Venus, he took the trouble to explain to his Tahitian friends what was happening. “To them we shewd the planet upon the sun and made them understand that we came on purpose to see it.”

During the long months at sea after leaving Tahiti, Banks rewrote his journal entries into a formal narrative, “On the Manners and Customs of the South Sea Islands,” one of the founding documents of the science of anthropology. In a less formal essay written after his return to England, he wrote:

In the Island of Otaheite where Love is the Chief Occupation, the favourite, nay almost the Sole Luxury of the Inhabitants, both the bodies and souls of the women are modeld in the utmost perfection for that soft science.

The Tahiti that he describes was truly an earthly paradise, not yet ravaged by European greed and European diseases, twenty years before the visit of William Bligh and the Bounty mutineers, sixty-six years before the visit of Charles Darwin and the Beagle.

After exploring the South Seas, Cook sailed down the eastern coast of Australia and landed at Botany Bay. Banks failed to establish social contacts with the Australian aborigines and returned to his role as botanist, bringing back to England a treasure trove of exotic plants, many of them today carrying his name. After he returned to England, he found that he and Captain Cook had become public heroes. He was invited to meet King George III, who was then young and of sound mind and shared his passion for botany. He remained a lifelong friend of the King, who actively supported his creation of the national botanic garden at Kew.

Banks became president of the Royal Society in 1778 and held that office for forty-two years, officially presiding over British science for more than half of the Age of Wonder. He presided with a light hand and did not attempt to turn the Royal Society into a professional organization like the academies of science in Paris and Berlin. He believed that science was best done by amateurs like himself. If some financial support was needed for people without private means, it could best be provided by aristocratic patrons.

One of those for whom Banks found support was William Herschel, the greatest astronomer of the age. Herschel was a native Hanoverian, and was conscripted at the age of seventeen to fight for Hanover in the Seven Years’ War against the French. After surviving a battle that the Hanoverians lost, he escaped to England to begin a new life as a professional musician. Starting as a penniless refugee, he rose rapidly in the English musical world. By his late twenties he was director of the orchestra in the Pump Room at Bath, the health resort where people of wealth congregated to take the waters and listen to concerts. He stayed at Bath for sixteen years, running the musical life of the city by day and scanning the sky at night. As an astronomer he was a complete amateur, unpaid and self-taught.

At the beginning, when Herschel began observing the heavenly bodies, he believed that they were inhabited by intelligent aliens. The round objects that he saw on the moon were cities that the aliens had built. He continued throughout his life to publish wild speculations, many of which turned out later to be correct. He had two great advantages as an observer. First, he built his own instruments, and with his musician’s hands made exquisitely figured mirrors that gave sharper images than any other telescopes then existing. Second, he brought his younger sister Caroline over from Hanover to be his assistant, and she became an expert observer with many independent discoveries to her credit. His life as an amateur ended in 1781 when with Caroline’s help he discovered the planet Uranus.

As soon as Banks heard of the discovery, he invited Herschel to dinner, introduced him to the King, and arranged for him to be appointed the King’s personal astronomer with a salary of £200 a year, later supplemented by a separate salary of £50 a year for Caroline. Herschel’s musical career was over, and he spent the rest of his life as a professional astronomer. He obtained royal funding to build bigger telescopes, and embarked on a systematic survey of every star and nebulous object in the sky, pushing his search outward to include objects fainter and more distant than anyone else had seen.

Herschel understood that when he looked at remote objects he was looking not only into deep space but into deep time. He correctly identified many of the nebulous objects as external galaxies like our own Milky Way, and calculated that he was seeing them as they existed at least two million years in the past. He showed that the universe was not only immensely large but immensely old. He published papers that moved away from the old Aristotelian view of the heavens as a static domain of perpetual peace and harmony, and toward the modern view of the universe as a dynamically evolving system. He wrote of “a gradual dissolution of the Milky Way” that would provide “a kind of chronometer that may be used to measure the time of its past and future existence.” This idea of a galactic chronometer was the beginning of the new science of cosmology.

As Holmes’s account suggests, all the leading scientists of the Romantic Age, like Banks and Herschel, started their lives as brilliant, unconventional, credulous, and adventurous amateurs. They blundered into science or literature in pursuit of ideas that were often absurd. They became sober professionals only after they had achieved success. Another example was Humphry Davy, who originally intended to be a physician and worked, as part of his medical training, as an assistant at the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol. The Pneumatic Institution was a clinic where patients were treated for ailments of all kinds by inhaling gases. Among the gases available for inhaling was nitrous oxide. Davy experimented enthusiastically with nitrous oxide, using himself and his friends, including Coleridge, as subjects. After one of these sessions, he wrote:

I have felt a more high degree of pleasure from breathing nitrous oxide than I ever felt from any cause whatever—a thrilling all over me most exquisitely pleasurable, I said to myself I was born to benefit the world by my great talents.

Davy was so popular in Bristol that he was invited at the age of twenty-three to become assistant lecturer in chemistry at the Royal Institution in London. The Royal Institution was a newly founded venture that provided “regular courses of philosophical lectures and experiments” for fashionable London audiences. For the preparation of experimental demonstrations to astound and educate the public, the lecturer was provided with a laboratory where he could also do original research.

Davy promptly switched his research activities from physiology to chemistry. He became the first electrochemist, using a huge electric battery to decompose chemical compounds, and discovered the elements sodium and potassium. Later he invented the Davy safety lamp, which made it possible for coal miners to work underground without killing themselves in methane explosions. The lamp made him even more famous. Coleridge invited him to move north and establish a chemical laboratory in the Lake District where Coleridge and Wordsworth lived. Coleridge wrote to him, “I shall attack Chemistry like a Shark.” Davy wisely stayed in London, where he succeeded Banks as president of the Royal Society and chief panjandrum of British science. The poet Byron gave him a couple of lines in his poem Don Juan :

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