It is a convenient coincidence that the rather infrequent Transit of Venus will occur in June right as I review The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. The first chapter is devoted to the first scientific expedition to view that astronomical phenomenon. Led by Captain Cook, the expedition included one Joseph Banks, a man who would distinguish himself in the service of science for many years.
In his prologue the author claims that the ``book is centred on two scientific lives, those of William Herschel and the chemist Humphry Davy. ... It also gives an account of their assistants and protégés...``. I beg to differ. The book is built on two themes. The book`s subtitle “How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science” is far more descriptive of the first theme. In the same prologue the author claims that Sir Joseph Banks was a ``scientific Virgil``, but Virgil was a poet who wrote about myths and fiction. Banks may have dabbled and certainly enjoyed poetry, but he did not write about myths. He created legends and heroes in reality. This is the second theme- how Banks established and controlled the destiny of British science in the century spanning the turn of the 19th century.
Sir Joseph Banks was an early botanist and responsible for the establishment (although not his idea) of Kew Botanical Gardens in London. He loved the exploration of new worlds and supported many such expeditions. One was choosing Captain Bligh (who had also sailed with Captain Cook) sending the H.M.S. Bounty to Tahiti to transport breadfruit trees to the West Indies. This fact is surprisingly omitted from the book although others are discussed. Banks was a founder and later president of the Royal Society, the society whose members pretty much cover the history of science (of course with some exceptions). Banks managed to identify up-and-coming scientists (“natural philosophers” they were called) and explorers and would arrange financing and motivation for them- perhaps an early form of angel investor. I believe this was his legacy although by the time he died, the organization had become atrophied and in need of a major shakeup.
I have read many books on scientists over the ages, and most of the characters in this book have been short changed in this genre of literature. I have only read passing references to William Herschel and I knew he discovered Uranus, but I was unaware that he classified the stars of the northern hemisphere, or that he was a great innovator in the design and manufacture of telescopes and for a while had the largest telescope on the world. I also didn`t know that despite all he could see through the telescope, for a while he believed there were beings on the moon and even on the sun! I was completely unaware of the contributions of his sister Caroline and that his son John was the most revered scientist of his age.
Of course we all know Sir Humphry Davy invented the Miner`s Safety Lamp and somehow Laughing Gas was associated with him in my mind. I learned that he actually was the first to derive Nitrous Oxide and tested it through much self-experimentation. He knew that it dulled pain, but it never occurred to him, brilliant though he was, that it might be used for anaesthesia. I guess he is good company- after all Edison observed the triode effect and didn’t conceive of its potential use. Davy’s other achievements included isolation of Potassium and Sodium, and in one night in competition with the French chemist Joseph Gay-Lusac identified Iodine. Another interesting tidbit was that James Watt (yes, that one) designed the gas breathing apparatus used with the Laughing Gas. Also interesting is that there was a dispute with George Stephenson (later designer of the steam locomotive, the Rocket) as to whether Davy had plagiarised the safety lamp from him. And of course there was his low-key assistant, Michael Faraday.
The stories though are by way of background as to how scientists affected the Romantic writers and especially their poetry. All of the poets are here, Wordsworth, Shelley, Milton, Byron and many others, without much of their lives, but with much of their poetry. I am too much of a philistine to appreciate it and I must admit that there were many pages that I just flipped through. My wife (an English major) informed me that the Romantic poets were considered anti-science, and the book sets out to disprove this entirely, but does indicate where the misperception arose.
Because the author is trying to show how the poetry was motivated he also includes seemingly incongruous chapters. There is a one on ballooning and another on a failed explorer, Mungo Park, who was hardly a scientist but was motivated by Banks and fitted into the romantic notions of the time.
Science involved the public (or at least the upper classes) far more than it does today. The public lectures were very well attended and there appear to have even been science ``groupies``. I guess because of this standing in society, the scientists rubbed shoulders with the poets and Davy himself was no mean poet (at least according to Coleridge). So the scientific concepts crept into the poetic phrases and some of the concepts led to artistic inventions that still entertain us today. Galvani’s experiments in animating frogs’ legs led to a spate of experiments on dead animals and this inspired Mary Shelly to come up with the story of Dr Frankenstein. The author dedicates a whole chapter to this, and there are quite a few references elsewhere in the narrative (too many for my taste!) that link literature to the practice.
I feel that the book left something to be desired. The author delves very deeply into the personal lives of the scientists leaving very little aspect of Davy’s marriage unexplored, yet the poets skirt by almost unexamined. In addition there is some reference to the historical events of the times- the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Lavoisier met his end at the guillotine and Franklin was communicating with the Royal Society even though the US was at war with Britain. (Precious little is made of this although the Franklin paradox is covered in “Seeing Further”, about the only thing that I managed to understand in that book on the Royal Society. To its credit “the Age of Wonder” does discuss how Davy accepted a French award while England was at war with France even though he had worked on improved explosives for the British army.) The fact there was no Germany yet is ignored totally although Herschel came from Hanover. There are hints that the scientists had to tread carefully both from a religious and a social justice perspective, but it is not pursued in any depth. It must have also found its way into the poetry as well, but (thankfully to me) this was beyond the scope of the book.
On the whole though, I did enjoy the book. I found it interesting as to how people used to travel in those days. They must have had an army of porters following them around. Davy and his wife did an 18 month tour with Michael Faraday in tow, working all the time with a portable chemistry lab.
I spent some time considering how Mr Holmes selected his characters, and I guess the simple answer is that the preset dates of the Romantic period dictated who would be included. But on reflection it seems to me that there was another common factor. Although Banks attended Eton and Oxford, it seems that most of his selections, not only did not go to the Oxford/Cambridge university establishment, but had absolutely no formal education at all. Perhaps the ability to have recognised potential outside of the class and educational systems was his greatest legacy.
Aubrey Kagan is a professional engineer with a BSEE from the
Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and an MBA from the University of the
Witwatersrand. Aubrey is engineering manager at Emphatec, a Toronto-based design
house of industrial control interfaces and switch-mode power supplies. In
addition to writing several articles for Circuit Cellar and having ideas
published in EDN and Electronic Design, Aubreywrote
Excel by Example: A Microsoft Excel Cookbook for Electronics
Engineers (Newnes, 2004).
Hi Aubrey -- thanks for a great review -- you beat me to it -- I read this book last yea rbut never found the time to review it.
For myself I really enjoyed this book. I agree with the flaws you point out, but all things considered I found it to be a really good read that gave me a much better appreciation for the science and scientists of that era.
And i have to say that I think "Mungo Park" is an amazing name (grin)