The Age of Wonder Richard Holmes

HarperPress, pp.380, 25

The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes

Just what some- one who studied science should be called was mooted at the 1833 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. ‘Formerly the “learned” embraced in their wide grasp all the branches of the tree of knowledge, mathematicians as well as philologers, physical as well as antiquarian speculators,’ reported the geologist William Whewell. ‘But these days are past.’

The meeting was chaired by Coleridge, who vetoed the use of ‘philosopher’; ‘savants’ was instantly rejected as too French. But ‘some ingenious gentlemen’ (including Whewell himself) proposed ‘that, by analogy with “artist”, they might form “scientist” ’. Natural philosophers did not, with their new designation, become in the mind of the public another kind of artist, but a breed apart, divorced from the wider culture. This, according to Richard Holmes, is a tragedy. We should repudiate the rigid boundaries that divide science from literature, art, ethics and religion.

We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all … we need 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.

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The moment of naming marks the end of Holmes’s ‘age of wonder’. It begins with Joseph Banks’s masterful account of his exploration of Tahiti with Captain Cook. Gout-ridden and increasingly immobile, Banks would never go on another voyage. But as President of the Royal Society between 1778 and 1820 he nurtured talent, inspired explorers and inventors and ensured that science retained its primacy in the public imagination. Banks was a man of polymathic learning: he would surely reject the title of scientist, and the specialism it implied.

Banks leads us to the self-taught William Herschel who discovered — among other crucial astronomical breakthroughs — Uranus, and was himself ‘discovered’ on the streets of Bath examining the stars through his powerful homemade telescope. These men were the most famous of an incredible generation — Herschel’s sister, Caroline (an influential astronomer when she could get time off from assisting the great man); the first men to leave the earth as balloonists; intrepid explorers such as Mungo Park; and the chemist/poet, Humphrey Davy. These figures, with their eureka moments, their ingenuity and bravery and their celebrity in turn inspired a new generation, which includes the perhaps more familiar names of Faraday, Babbage and Darwin.

It is not just that they lived at a propitious time for discovery; they were able to capture and hold the imaginations of their contemporaries. If Banks travelled to a new world, people such as Davy and the Herschels made people see their world in an entirely new way. John Bonnycastle, in his Introduction to Astronomy, wrote that

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 of being, man seems but a drop of water… But from this situation, perplexing as it is, he endeavours to extricate himself; and by looking abroad into Nature, employs the powers she has bestowed upon him in investigating her works.

There is more than a casual relationship between romantic poetry and romantic science: they were caught up in the same passions and they fed off each other with something approaching insatiable greed. Some of the most interesting parts of this book come when Holmes shows how the poets incorporated the latest scientific discoveries in their work. The literary and scientific social worlds were interchangeable; their leading lights were bound by personal connections and omnivorous intellectual curiosity. In their speculations and experiments they sought the moment when the world changes for good. Capturing this poetic and scientific sensibility Holmes writes:

The explorer, the scientific observer, the literary reader, experience the Sublime: a moment of revelation into the idea of the unbounded, the infinite.

In such an environment, then, it is little wonder that scientific publications were devoured by the public and their authors aspired to a high style. Holmes shows that some of the neglected classics of romantic writing were in fact written by those whom we would call scientists.

But perhaps the most famous pieces of writing from this time are attacks on science for its materialism and atheism; for crudely stripping mystery and wonder from the world. Yet as Holmes shows, much of the serious criticism did not come from wishy-washy anxiety or wilful ignorance, but from intimacy with science. Frankenstein, for example, is not anti-science, but an informed fictional account of a debate within science. It is this point, more than anything else, which dramatises the danger of living in a society where the sciences and humanities have split into ‘two cultures’: popular culture has inherited much of the ‘terror’ of the romantic period, less of its curiosity.

The Age of Wonder is fascinating in its own right; but more than that it serves as a model of how science should be taught and explained to a large audience, whatever the period and whatever the subject. We are reminded daily of the terror of science; innocent wonder is no longer possible when we have seen the alliance of barbarism and technology. Recovering and communicating the beauties and truths of modern science, uniting the two cultures, awaits its genius. This book provides the inspiration.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated