Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder.

Reading between the lines.
July 20 2009 6:53 AM

What's Romantic About Science?

When science became a source of sublime terror.

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The phrase appeals strongly to Holmes, and he expands on it: "Science, like poetry, was not merely 'progressive.' It directed a particular kind of moral energy and imaginative longing into the future. It enshrined the implicit belief that mankind could achieve a better, happier world." "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," Wordsworth wrote of the French Revolution, and the revolution in science was just as heady.

Yet the Romantic poets also made the case against science in powerful terms that still influence our mistrust of science and technology. Science alienates us from nature and ourselves, Wordsworth wrote in "The Tables Turned": "Sweet is the lore which Nature brings/ Our meddling intellect/ Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:/ We murder to dissect." One of the best-known anecdotes about Keats, which Holmes duly recounts, has him complaining at a dinner party that Newton "destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to a prism" and drinking a toast for "confusion to Mathematics." And none other than Coleridge said that "the Souls of 500 Sir Isaac Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakespeare or a Milton"—a view that, Holmes writes, "has a peculiar power to outrage men of science, even modern ones."

But the most potent Romantic warning against the peril of science was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, to which Holmes devotes a chapter. Holmes shows that Shelley was alluding to Davy when she wrote, in Frankenstein, of how modern scientists "have acquired new and almost unlimited Powers: they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadow." But the lesson of her book is that these powers are too great for human wisdom—that once they are unleashed, they may return to destroy their masters as Dr. Victor Frankenstein's monster turns on him. Shelley's creation clearly touched a nerve in English society: "[I]t was made famous, if not notorious, in the 1820s by no less than five adaptations for the stage," Holmes writes. 

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Frankenstein was a parable for an age when every scientific advance seemed to mark a threat. Sometimes the threats were quite literal. No sooner had Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier made the first manned balloon flight in Paris in November 1783, than Benjamin Franklin, the American ambassador to France, was imagining the possibilities of balloon warfare: "Five thousand balloons capable of raising two men each" could carry a French army across the Channel to England, where "ten thousand Men descending from the Clouds might in many places do an infinite deal of mischief."

Even laughing gas, discovered by Davy in 1799, was unsettling in the very intensity of the pleasure it brought. "The pleasurable sensation was at first local, and perceived in the lips and the cheeks," Davy recorded. "It gradually, however, diffused itself over the whole body, and in the middle of the experiment was for a moment so intense and pure as to absorb existence. At this moment, and not before, I lost consciousness." Was nitrous oxide, the world wondered, a boon to mankind, even a possible surgical anesthetic, or an excuse for moral decay and sexual license? It was rumored that Davy's laboratory witnessed uncanny scenes, as when a "young woman was overcome by hysterical excitement, ran out of the laboratory, and rushed screaming down the street …where she was somewhat bizarrely reported to have 'jumped over a large dog' before she could be restrained and brought back." It sounds like something Mary Shelley might have dreamed.

Finally, The Age of Wonder places more faith in science's "beauty" than in its "terror." "We need," Holmes writes in a heartfelt epilogue, "the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe." Yet it is only because of science and technology, of course, that the future of the globe is in question. Without nuclear weapons and global warming, not to mention the Large Hadron Collider, we wouldn't need to reinforce our "hope" and "belief" in the survival of the species, which, until the 20th century, was taken for granted. There is a reason that Herschel and Davy, heroes in their own time, have been overshadowed by the eminent contemporary whose name everyone still knows, Frankenstein.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic.