Richard Holmes and The Age of Wonder
This past Monday, I was fortunate enough to attend a talk given by Richard Holmes at Philadelphia’s very own Chemical Heritage Foundation. Mr. Holmes is a scholar of Romanticism, and has written many biographical studies of various persons from that time period, including Mary Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His latest book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, “chronicles the breakthroughs that launched the Romantic Age of Science.” His talk was a sort of summary of The Age of Wonder, and although I was slightly disappointed that Holmes pretty much stuck to talking about stuff that was in the book, it was still quite a fantastic time. If you haven’t read it, do yourself and your brain a favor and go pick up a copy.
If you haven’t had a chance to read the book, I highly recommend it. Holmes essentially argues against the wildly held belief that there was a cultural gap between science and the arts throughout the Romantic period. For example, that Merry Shelley’s Frankenstein is solely about the horrors of science and a warning against the pursuit of scientific discovery. Holmes provides compelling evidence that Romantic artists were, in fact, as fascinated by the possibility and romance of discovery as they were by the potential terrors of scientific misstep.
The book is essentially “a rely of scientific stories” (as was his talk) that illustrate the wonderment and optimism of the period. It all begins with the Cook’s 1769 voyage and the work of young naturalist Joseph Banks. Banks quickly shifted from nature studies into a sort of cultural anthropologist as the expedition came into contact with new and fascinating cultures such as the Tahitian natives. Holmes relayed a particularly interesting anecdote about a British marine standing guard outside of Cook’s camp looking down the moonlit beach to see Banks and two Tahitian women dancing completely naked down the shore.
From Banks, Holmes briskly moved through other big scientists of period, including William and Caroline Herschel. The brother-sister team were amateur astronomers who resided in Bath, and who discovered Uranus, the first new planet to be discovered in over 1,000 years. The moment of discovery was recounted in a poem by John Keats, the last of the great Romantic poets. Holmes also talked at length about the first balloon flights that were going on during this time, and how the views of earth from above that people were getting for the first time greatly influenced the way people, and the Romantic artists, viewed the human race and our place here on earth. Holmes likened it to the first shots of earth rising above the moon taken during the Apollo 8 mission.
Holmes also talked about English chemist Humphry Davy and his early experiments with nitrous oxide. Davy and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, another great Romantic poet, used to experiment with laughing gas on themselves, and there experience certainly influenced Coleridge’s work at the time. Davy went on to invent the miner’s safety lamp and “established British chemistry as the leading professional science in Europe.”