The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
By Richard Holmes
Everyone knows how to be a great scientist. First, you have to be really smart. Having awed your school science teacher is good. Humbling all the others at university is even better. Then you need to find a place where you can let your solitary genius come out. You might escape to a coffee shop to think; or if your parents are really rich, to a trendy loft apartment or, better still, a remote and windswept cottage. There you will engage in the next and most crucial of stages: the creative torture.
There is an art to this. It is important your torment doesn't end too quickly — otherwise you'd show you had been working on a problem that was too simple. Yet if the torment never ends, you'll have nothing to tell anyone about and will remain unknown. After some time, ideally a few months, you get to have a 'eureka moment'. At that point all you have to do is write up your discovery, accept the plaudits, be it from department colleagues or the Swedish Academy, and then if you can bear it, repeat from the start.
We smile at this recap but the basic vision — science as an endeavour of individual creative genius that explodes in an instant of discovery — is one we take for granted. Yet, as Richard Holmes describes in his new book The Age of Wonder, it was not always so. Most founders of modern science in the 1600s, such as Isaac Newton, rarely saw their work this way. For them the process was clinical, building on a slow accumulation of insight.
The big shift took place in the decades around 1800, a period called the Romantic era. The pursuit of progress by thinkers and artists became more a wait for a divine spark of inspiration than the steady toil of uncovering that had been accepted by their predecessors. And any means by which that spark could be nurtured was embraced.
To guide readers through the science and culture of this period, Holmes masterfully dips in and out of the life of Joseph Banks. He is an inspired choice. As a curly haired 26-year-old, Banks was aboard HM Bark Endeavour on the momentous day in April 1769 when it first glided into sight of Tahiti. Ostensibly Banks was just the expedition's plant collector, but he soon became more fascinated by the island's human inhabitants.
For most of the British crew — young men who had been away from female company for long months — the explorations in Tahiti were of one sort only, with the initial going rate being one ship's nail for one sexual encounter. That rate soon changed — as Holmes describes with gentle skill, the Tahitians were quick to grasp the workings of the market economy, and had a keen eye for the other useful metal objects aboard the ship. Hyperinflation set in, and at one point “there was a crisis when one of the Endeavour's crew stole a hundredweight bag of nails, and refused to reveal its whereabouts even after a flogging”.
Banks looked further. He took up Tahitian mistresses too, but systematically recorded the local language, studied their religious systems, and even hinted at the true functional significance of native actions that, at first, seemed to be merely bizarre. Within a few months he had helped set the stage for the modern science of anthropology.
Back in London, Banks's insights, energy and inherited wealth eventually led to him becoming president of the Royal Society. From his headquarters, as Holmes gracefully phrases it, “his gaze swept steadily round the globe like some vast, enquiring lighthouse beam”. His own days of direct discovery were over, but couldn't other like-minded individuals be encouraged to carry on such wondrous, intense investigations?
One of the young men Banks chose to support was Humphry Davy: friend of the Romantic poets, and — in his quick, intense creation of a safe coal-miner's lamp in response to underground disasters — a man who made himself into a perfect exemplar of the new, Romantic style of discovery. Davy hurried to the mines, spent intense weeks with the miners and then took himself off to an isolated lab where, using his unique genius, he cracked the problem.
Another of Banks's protégés was William Herschel, the immigrant Hanoverian astronomer. Herschel is most famous now for having measured the orbit of Uranus and establishing this body as a planet, which almost became known as planet George to honour King George III. But Herschel also worked out the shape of the Milky Way and the Sun's off-centre position in it, and he discovered infrared radiation.
Although his work relied on the dull accumulation of observational facts, it was the role of sudden insight and genius that Herschel and others emphasized in their written accounts. In Herschel's case, it was true to his character: he had risen in society by transforming his own life and moving to England. Wouldn't he imagine there were fresh realms — new planets, stars beyond our Solar System, light beyond the visible spectrum — to uncover in nature as well?
Our notion of earlier scientists, including Newton, was rewritten to fit this Romantic view. The young poet William Wordsworth, for example, had famously devalued science with his harsh line that when we probe the mechanism of a natural process, “we murder to dissect”. But decades later, as the work of Banks and his protégés became better known, Wordsworth shifted to admire science, seeing Newton as the archetypal Romantic hero: “Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”
Over time, the simplest Romantic imagery slid away. Few of the hundreds of physicists working today at CERN, the European particle-physics lab near Geneva, Switzerland, must view themselves as voyaging anywhere alone. But the Romantic era left great legacies. Newton's static Universe was gone, and Herschel's dynamic one — in which stars evolved and the heavens were ever-changing — was in its place. This mutable view was useful for the next notable young man, one Charles Darwin, when he was ready to embark on his own voyage of discovery on HMS Beagle in 1831. And even among today's doctoral candidates at CERN, who doesn't hope that maybe, with enough concentration, something very special and very unique could still burst out?