There was a time, 200 years ago, when scientists and poets shared a vision of the world, says John Hinton
The Age of Wonder
BY RICHARD HOLMES HARPER COLLINS, £25
With The Age of Wonder author Richard Holmes adds to his to already substantial credits as historian and biographer par excellence. We know immediately what he is about and plunge gratefully into his rivers of effortless prose about the magic time 200 years ago when art and science were married in coincidental and joyful discovery.
Once immersed, we meet a host of fascinating characters alight with curiosity. First, an agreeable and dedicated young man called Joseph Banks, an official botanist perched awkwardly in the crow’s nest of HMS Endeavour captained by a certain James Cook in 1769. Joseph’s scientific self was looking for a landfall among the surf of the Polynesian Islands; his Romantic self was also combing the tropical seascape for the fabled island of Tahiti, the location of paradise. He found both and it was not long before the ship’s crew made a happy landfall on the island for a period of three months.
The Tahitian girls were fond of Banks but their menfolk, despite all attempts to stop them, were chronic thieves. At one point they made off with the ship’s quadrant and had to be pursued into the mountainous heart of the island by the young botanist and a squad of marines.
Cooke’s response to this was to build a fort and post guards, but he nevertheless commended Banks for his superior grasp of the native culture, customs and language. His essays and samples earned Banks a brilliant reputation on his return to England. But for some reason he never completed the full story of his voyage to paradise, perhaps because by age 50 he was crippled by gout; his adventure remains a preface to what followed in Holmes’s wondrous age.
We move onwards and upwards. And in December 1783, a crowd of 400,000 Parisians, about half of the city’s population, gathered in the Tuileries gardens to watch a scien tific first: a manned ascent in a hydrogen balloon. Only a month earlier, the Montgolfier brothers had gripped Europe with news they had sent humans aloft in a vessel lifted by hot air. In its wake, balloon fever swept the Continent.
Yet according to Holmes, the Montgolfiers’s craft was an “uncontrollable monster”, unlike the vehicle designed by Dr Alexandre Charles. This used “inflammable air” – hydrogen, newly discovered by Lavoisier – to achieve its lift and was fitted with valves, ballast, barometers and thermometers. It was intended to be a true scientific test flight.
Charles and his assistant Ainé Roberts duly set off in his balloon and flew serenely across the French countryside for two hours before landing at Nesle. Savouring his moment of glory, Charles asked Roberts to step out first. This was an error. Free of Roberts’s weight, the balloon launched back into the evening air with just the hapless Charles on board. Within 10 minutes, he had soared up to 10,000 feet. “I was the first man to see the sun set twice in the same day,” Charles recalled. Terrified, he just managed to land his craft and never flew again.
Charles’s ordeal was not in vain. Benjamin Franklin, who had watched the ascent from the Tuileries, was deeply impressed and envisaged the day when airborne armies would transform warfare. Astronomer William Herschel wondered, presciently, if telescopes could be carried high into the clear upper atmosphere. And Samuel Johnson claimed it would soon be possible to examine “the face of Nature, from one extremity of the Earth to the other”.
Such reactions vividly encapsulate the Age of Wonder, a time when science and Romanticism worked hand in hand to reveal the glories of Nature. It was a very different revolution from the one previously wrought by the mathematical and philosophical works of Newton, Locke and Descartes.
Those scholars certainly changed our vision of the cosmos, but in a distinctly elitist manner. They used only Latin or mathematical terms to describe their work and limited their numbers to a small circle of savants.
Science’s second great revolution was very different with its commitment “to explain, to educate, to communicate”. And if this involved a bit of showmanship, so be it.
Apart from the balloon trips and expeditions to distant and exotic lands, there were public lectures where Humphry Davy demonstrated dramatically how two glistening new elements – potassium and sodium – could be isolated by electrolysing pots of foul, bubbling caustic alkalis. And then the construction of the great telescopes of Herschel, which revealed comets, nebulae and a new planet, Uranus, in the night sky.
More important, these efforts were followed avidly and sympathetically not just by the public, but by poets and writers, including Byron, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley. Similarly, Joseph Haydn claimed a visit to Herschel, then living in Slough, in 1792 helped him write his oratorio “The Creation”; Byron’s Don Juan includes a tribute to Davy’s lantern; while in 1812 Shelley used unmanned fire balloons to distribute copies of his revolutionary pamphlet, A Declaration of Rights.
Clearly, in those days, society saw no gulf between the artist and the scientist. As Holmes makes clear, 200 years ago poets, writers and scientists shared a vision of Nature. There is no reason why they should not do so again.
Wordsworth’s leap of the heart when he saw a rainbow was not Newton’s prism; it was Nature’s own rather more spectacular effect.
Thus the lives of botanist Joseph Banks, Davy the chemist, the poet Coleridge and a host of other scientific romantics are knitted together in a seamless narrative that is laced, to good effect, with a great deal of titillating gossip.
The end result is quite compelling. And it is told with the pace and élan that are the hallmark of all great history and biography.