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."

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. 

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.

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