The beauty and terror of science

Romantic poets and scientists tapped the marvels of nature and sounded a clarion alarm that can transform us today

Published August 10, 2009 10:20AM (EDT)

An exuberant portrait of adventurer Joseph Banks after his triumphant return from the Pacific.
An exuberant portrait of adventurer Joseph Banks after his triumphant return from the Pacific.

It's always fascinating to read about science before the big three discoveries: evolution by natural selection, the theory of general relativity and the DNA molecule. Swept back in time by a sensational writer like Richard Holmes, we see driven men and women chasing the light of nature's fundamental laws, like explorers crossing night seas toward treasured shores. But that's what makes their stories compelling. With their magnificent questions and ingenious inventions, they slowly pushed science forward. Was the night sky fixed in place by a divine creator? How could it be? Astronomers with powerful new telescopes in the 18th century revealed the universe was in constant motion -- stars were busy being born or busy dying.

A good history of science unreels like the practice of science itself. It wends through a world of experiments until a new reality arises. But the more layered story of that journey is that science is not just a process but is the men and women performing it. In his radiant new book, "The Age of Wonder," Holmes treats us to the amazing lives of the pioneering sailors and balloonists, astronomers and chemists of the Romantic era. Making good on the book's subtitle, he takes us on a dazzling tour of their chaotic British observatories and fatal explorations in African jungles, showing us "how the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science."

That's an exceptional insight. After all, this was the time when William Wordsworth wandered lonely as a cloud along England's lakes and John Keats told us all we need to know on earth is "beauty is truth." To this day, Romantic poets and scientists are not supposed to be seen together. "Romanticism as a cultural force is generally regarded as intensely hostile to science, its ideal of subjectivity eternally opposed to that of scientific objectivity," Holmes writes.

What's superlative about "The Age of Wonder" is that Holmes, author of vivid biographies of Shelley and Coleridge, takes the air out of the terms "subjectivity" and "objectivity" and reveals the ways in which the artists were as enveloped in science as the men and women in the labs around them. In a harmony of scientific and artistic sensibilities, he shows, the Romantics tapped the marvels of nature and sounded the infinite benefits of science. It's a song, if we can hear it, that can transform us today.

In Holmes' keen focus, the Romantic era is the Age of Aquarius in science. There was something in the water then -- a tonic of wonder, as he sees it. The austere fellows of the previous age, Descartes and Newton, were too obsessed with etching new sciences in stone to gaze beyond the mechanics of their labors. But as the Enlightenment marched on, scientists began to look up from their desks and into themselves. They became self-conscious. Doubts cracked the cold calculations before them -- doubts, Holmes writes, that "favored a softer dynamic science of invisible powers and mysterious energies, of fluidity and transformations, of growth and organic change."

Holmes' Moses of Romantic science, its guide to a new promised land, was Joseph Banks. A dashing young naturalist, mad about botany, Banks' lived by his own credo: "To explore is my wish." In 1769, Banks ventured to Tahiti with Capt. James Cook on a mission whose primary goal was to observe the Transit of Venus. The Pacific Island provided a front-row seat to the rare occurrence of Venus passing directly between the sun and Earth. Banks wanted to study trees.

On the island, things changed. Banks quickly established his independence from Cook and his conservative crew by falling in love with the native people. Rather than colonize them, Banks wanted to understand them. He mastered some of their language, danced with them, had sex with them, and wrote candidly of the light and dark sides of their natures. They could be open and generous one day and thieves and strange sorcerers who practiced infanticide the next. Banks journeyed to Tahiti as an Enlightenment botanist determined to catalog shrubs and flowers and returned to England a Romantic adventurer who journeyed into the heart of human nature and helped pioneer the science of anthropology.

Back in England, Banks became a cynosure of London society with his exotic Tahitian tales. His fame and intelligence led to his appointment as president of the Royal Society, the influential body of philosophers and scientists, who directed and funded the country's scientific endeavors. As the man in charge for the next 42 years, mired in politics, navigating whimsical kings and religious leaders, Banks never abandoned the adventurer inside him. "His body may have been chairbound, but his spirit was increasingly airborne," writes Holmes.

The first great discovery under Banks' watch in England was made by German transplant William Herschel, a musician who learned to read the stars like music. An obsessive inventor, Herschel designed and built large "reflector" telescopes, which captured and concentrated starlight with unprecedented intensity and clarity, allowing him to plunge deeper into space than ever before. Herschel also devised a meticulous math for scanning the skies.

Just as impressive was Herschel's unfailingly humble and devoted sister, Caroline, who worked around the clock at her brother's side. Without a formal education, she became nearly as schooled in the way of the skies as her brother, though she would never say so (and neither would he). Caroline would discover numerous comets herself, making her one the first women scientists to win official acclaim from Banks and the Royal Society. (Caroline and her comets were a hot topic in popular magazines.) Holmes sketches the relationship of William and Caroline with heartbreaking, Thomas Hardy-ish skill. The domineering William, we learn, could never quite overcome his condescension toward his sister.

In 1781, after weeks of painstaking observation, Herschel identified a new planet in the solar system, Uranus. The discovery, the first of a new planet since ancient times, guaranteed Herschel's eternal fame and electrified the populace.

Finding Uranus also underscored a verity of science that belied another myth about Romanticism. As much as the world wanted to believe in a Eureka moment, the truth was Herschel's discovery arose from laborious work. But mere mortal that he was, Herschel could not refrain from romantically refining his story. As Herschel grew older, Holmes writes, he would tell listeners that he spotted Uranus in "a single wondrous night, the inspired work of a few 'glorious hours.'"

Despite that embellishment, or perhaps because of it, Herschel embodied the ebullient tenor of the era. News of his discovery, and those of his fellow scientists, raced around the continent. Science and wonder, it seemed, had reached their apogee. Holmes goes so far as to say, "This moment of scientific optimism coincided with the political optimism in Britain and France. In 1789 the Bastille would fall, and the Rights of Man would be declared."

At the same time, the astronomer augured a profound discontent. With his refined telescope, Herschel showed his generation that galaxies existed far, far away. Given the time it took light to travel, that implied enormous periods of time. He observed that stars and nebulae underwent constant changes over time. The universe was evolving. What Herschel saw through his telescope was a radical affront to the Bible and churches, which held that God created a fixed universe about 6,000 years ago. Beholding deep space and contemplating vast gulfs of time was, in Holmes' phrase, "disabling with awe."

And people were feeling it. John Bonnycastle, a popular science writer, wrote in 1786, "Astronomy has enlarged the sphere of our conceptions and opened to us a universe without bounds, where the human Imagination is lost. Surrounded by infinite space, and swallowed up in an immensity, man seems but as a drop of water in the ocean, mixed and confounded with the general mass."

The awe of the universe was mirrored with acuity by the poets. Of all the masters of the era, Coleridge most often faced the immensity with wonder. Ever since he was a young boy gazing at the stars, he wrote, his "mind had been habituated to the Vast." And in one of his late poems, "Limbo," he imagined himself as a blind old man, gazing at the moon: "His whole face seemeth to rejoice in the light!"

Byron visited Herschel and described looking through his telescope as a religious experience. "I viewed the moon and the stars," he wrote, "and saw that they were worlds." Later, though, he tapped into the terror of the experience. In his poem, "Darkness," he wrote: "The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars/Did wander darkling in the eternal space."

But all was not lost. The mixture of beauty and terror in science took a colorful turn with the era's balloonists, notably Vincent Lunardi. The boisterous Italian was a born entrepreneur. He charged an admission fee to see his balloon in a theater, took his dog and cat on flights and sold the exclusive rights to his aerial tales to newspapers. "With ballooning," Holmes writes, "science had found a powerful new formula: chemistry plus showmanship equaled crowds plus wonder plus money."

With their boisterous personalities, resplendent canopies and test flights that nearly always ended in dramatic crashes, the mad balloonists boosted the popularity of science. It was just that, despite some some significant research into hydrogen gas, air currents and clouds, few serious observers, including Royal Society president Banks, could figure out the long-term benefits of the spectacle.

Gothic novelist Horace Walpole, observing the flights, delivered one of the most prescient comments ever about the dark side of science. "Well! I hope these new mechanic meteors will prove only playthings for the learned and idle, and not be converted into new engines of destruction to the human race -- as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in Science," he wrote. "The wicked wit of man always studies to apply the results of talents to enslaving, destroying, or cheating his fellow creatures. Could we reach the moon, we should think of reducing it to a province of some European kingdom."

Holmes charts the grim side of science in an engaging chapter on Scottish adventurer Mungo Park. Inspired by Banks, Park traveled to Africa to map the Niger River and explore the legendary city of Timbuctoo. Unlike Banks, though, Park did not dance with the native people; he was attacked and imprisoned by them. Park's book "Travels In the Interior of Africa," a rending account of his travails and epiphany among nature that stirred him to survive, inspired the pantheon of Romantic poets, and later Joseph Conrad. On a second trip to Africa in 1805, Park, on a boat in the Niger River, was ambushed by local tribesmen. He either drowned or was killed when he came ashore.

Doubts that thrilling science lacked social benefits began to creep into Romantic culture. They lodged in the person of gregarious poet and chemist Humphry Davy, who was crazy about nitrous oxide (laughing gas). At the "Pneumatic Institute," a kind of prototype clinic for experimental treatments, Davy  performed countless experiments with the gas on himself. After one of his first forays out of his head, he wrote that nitrous oxide "made me dance about the laboratory as a madman, and has kept my spirits in a glow ever since."

In no time, Davy convinced his friends, including poets Coleridge and Robert Southey, and medical doctor Peter Roget, to give the gas a go. In a funny anecdote, Holmes relates that Roget, the compiler of Roget's Thesaurus, couldn't find the right words to describe the feeling of ecstasy. "I felt myself totally incapable of speaking," he said. Davy's experiments ended mostly in ridicule; unfortunately, he couldn't quite make the intellectual leap to realize nitrous oxide could revolutionze surgery as an anesthesia.

Davy, though, went on to produce "one of the great demonstrations of scientific 'Hope,'" Holmes writes, one that revealed applied science could be a force for good and alleviate human suffering. Coal miners were dying from underground explosions ignited by the candles and oil lamps they carried. By surrounding the flame with a metallic mesh, Davy created a lantern that illuminated dark mineshafts without sparking explosions. The "Davy safety lamp" also foreshadowed a fixture of science in later generations. Another lantern maker accused Davy of plagiarizing his design. The charge was proven baseless but it hounded Davy for years.

As the turn of the century dawned, and brilliant new chemists and astronomers arrived on the scene, an encroaching sense that scientists were gaining control over human nature clouded the cultural skies. The fear was epitomized in Wordsworth's line, "We murder to dissect." Holmes limns the darkness with a scintillating chapter on Mary Shelley and "Frankenstein," describing how her novel arose out the popular "Vitalism" debates between physicians who argued that human life was animated by some external force like electricity, and those, such as fearless young doctor William Lawrence, who argued there was no such thing, that the "human body is merely a complex physical organization," Holmes writes.

Holmes, who understands the Romantic generation as well as any historian, and writes with a journalistic verve more engaging and personal than most scholars, offers a wonderfully fresh and insightful reading of "Frankenstein." Because the movies have obscured the subtleties of Shelley's original work, Holmes reminds us that the real tragedy of the Creature, who was articulate and self-aware, was his sense that he and his creator had lost their souls. "I shall no longer see the sun or stars, or feel the winds play on my cheeks," laments the Creature.

As the 19th century raced on, a sense of alienation from nature deepened. Artists felt their enthusiasm draining and their pessimism rising. In a letter to Coleridge, Southey wrote, "I wish it were not true, but unfortunately it is, that experimental philosophy always deadens the feelings; and these men who 'botanize upon their mothers' graves'" -- a reference to another Wordsworth line -- "may retort and say, that cherished feelings deaden our usefulness; and so we are all well in our way."

It is necessary for scientists to hone their objectivity to "discern objects clearly" and shun "intellectual mists" and "absurd fables," argued Lawrence. And so it is. But in the process, scientists, and the generations they represent, cut themselves off from the "magnificent, the sublime and the beautiful," in Davy's words. Our deadened feelings spurred us to commit atrocious acts with the tools of science, symbolized by the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima.

Today, we are still chasing the laws of nature, with surgical new technology, and writing the history of science. But we stand again at a crossroad, facing new environmental and geopolitical dangers. As Holmes writes, "The old rigid debates and boundaries -- science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics -- are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective." The Romantics gave us that perspective. Now we just have to live by it.

By Kevin Berger

Kevin Berger is the former features editor at Salon.

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