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.

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

The last time a scientific breakthrough made the front page, it was because science threatened to kill us all. The launch of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland last September was greeted with headlines like Time's "Collider Triggers End-of-the-World Fears" as journalists tried to calculate the odds that the world's largest particle accelerator would accidentally tear apart the space-time continuum and annihilate the Earth. And it is not just such doomsday scenarios that make us suspicious of technological progress: On a philosophical level, too, scientific advances can look like human retreats. A century and a half after Darwin, there are millions of Christians who see evolution as an intolerable blow to human dignity, just as there are millions of environmentalists who see Western science as a scourge of the planet.

These 21st-century conundrums have been with us for a long time. In The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science,  Richard Holmes explores an early-19th-century period of terrific—and often terrified—excitement about science, of marvelous discoveries that raised humble experimenters to the rank of national heroes. Holmes' subjects—including astronomer William Herschel, chemist Humphry Davy, and explorer Mungo Park—were household names in England, but their discoveries were by no means always welcome ones. Herschel's observation of the stars, for instance, showed that the Milky Way was just one of a vast number of galaxies that were constantly being born, aging, and dying. The Milky Way, Herschel warned, "cannot last forever." It followed, as Holmes writes, that "our solar system, our planet, and hence our whole civilization would have an ultimate and unavoidable end." For the first time, the apocalypse was not a matter of religious faith but of demonstrated scientific fact.

Herschel's discoveries represent one face of what Holmes calls, loosely but suggestively, Romantic science. The phrase sounds like an oxymoron, as Holmes acknowledges: "Romanticism as a cultural force is generally regarded as intensely hostile to science, its ideal of subjectivity eternally opposed to that of scientific objectivity. But I do not believe this was always the case, or that the terms are so mutually exclusive. The notion of wonder seems to be something that once united them, and can still do so."

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Contemplating the immensity and strangeness of the universe could produce the same feeling of sublime terror that Coleridge strove for in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" or that Wordsworth evokes in parts of his autobiographical epic "The Prelude." In Keats' sonnet "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer," the poet compares his feeling of literary discovery with that of "some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken"; as Holmes explains, this was an allusion to Herschel's discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781, one of the stories told at length in The Age of Wonder.

At the same time, the growing fame of individual scientists made them seem larger-than-life, almost superhuman, like the Romantic persona cultivated by Lord Byron. The glamour of exploration was unmistakable: Joseph Banks, who returned from Tahiti with tales of erotic adventure, and Mungo Park, who spent two years charting the course of the Niger River, were objects of fascination on their return to England. (Banks stayed home and spent a long career as president of the Royal Society; Park returned to Africa and disappeared.) Humphry Davy's glamour was of a different kind. Alone in his laboratory, he penetrated the deepest secrets of nature, isolating the elements of sodium, iodine, and chlorine for the first time. His discoveries, his useful inventions (including a safety lamp for coal miners), and his brilliant popular lectures made him a celebrity and a social lion—he won a knighthood and a rich wife, although, as Holmes shows, neither made him happy.

Davy was also an accomplished poet who insisted on the close relationship between scientific and artistic ways of seeing. "The perception of truth is almost always as simple a feeling as the perception of beauty," he wrote, "and the genius of Newton, of Shakespeare, of Michael Angelo, and of Handel, are not very remote in character from each other. Imagination, as well as reason, is necessary to perfection in the philosophic mind." It is the kind of observation one might expect from the polymath Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Davy's close friend. In a letter to Davy in 1800, Coleridge speculated on the affinity between science and poetry: "[B]eing necessarily performed with the passion of Hope," the poet believed, science "was poetical."

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