The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes
Andrew West discovers that the history of discovery is more complicated than you think.
I spent the first few months of 2009 travelling around humanist groups and asking their members one question: ‘what are you happy about?’. I was collecting answers for a book, and I quickly hit a snag: people kept giving the same response. It seems that many, many humanists are happy about the joys of the world, the thrill of experience and the fact of their very existence – in short, the wonder of life. Which is a lovely thing. Somewhat problematic for me, but buoying nonetheless.
The sentiment was so prevalent that it’s tempting to wonder whether it’s a rare (unique?) point of agreement among self-described humanists. I started asking for more details, and found a surprising level of agreement on the inspiration for said wonder. Biology was a common source of delight, as were cosmology and quantum physics. Others waxed lyrical on the power of the arts, or the pure elegance of mathematics. But science was by far the most popular.
It’s clear that many humanists see science and wonder as two sides of the same coin, but the concepts have a fractious relationship. During the 19th century the Romantic movement declared that rational thought in fact stifles wonder and dulls the artistic spirit. A deeper understanding of the world, they said, could only be found through feeling and emotion: insight comes from wonder, never the reverse. Such ideas continue to this day. How often do we hear cultural commentators – and religious apologists – decrying science for destroying mystery? It’s reductionist, we’re told, mechanistic and soul-destroying. Wonder, it seems, lies in the nebulous unknown, and the truth is grey in comparison.
Of course, scientists did, and do, object. Richards Feynman and Dawkins have produced whole books countering this anti-science sentiment, and Carl Sagan was a walking counter-example who devoted his life to spreading the pro-science-and-wonder message. But the old clichés still have traction, and so once more unto the breach steps Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, a hugely ambitious book that argues for scientific/Romantic union by detailing what the author calls ‘the second Enlightenment’, during which science and wonder were as one.
For a brief period – the author says about 60 years over the turn of the 19th century – the wonder so craved by later Romantics was supplied in spades by scientific investigation, and everybody knew it. The poets of the age revelled in the advances coming out of the Royal Society. Nature was still a goddess, and every new discovery of her intricacies provided yet more evidence of her beauty and power. Before the Romantics appropriated and redefined nature as a virginal, innocent female, regularly abused and violated by science (terms of sexual violence are often used, which is vile), a vanguard of intellectual pioneers brought about a flourishing of scientific excitement in a society eager for discovery. The Age of Wonder charts this period, starting in about 1770 with Captain Cook’s first round-the-world expedition, which took a young Joseph Banks to Tahiti.
The future head of the Royal Society had all manner of grand and lascivious adventures in the Pacific – including plenty of time spent negotiating the release of the hostages that Captain Cook was prone to taking at the slightest provocation (this turned out not to be the best strategy, long-term). Banks then returned to London to settle down to a life as the lynchpin for the rest of the book. As various scientists, explorers and adventurers attract Joseph Banks’ interest, so too do we hear their life stories. They are fascinating characters, quickly dispelling any stereotypes of post-Enlightenment scientists all being a bit like Newton – i.e. grumpy, stuffy and old – and it’s through their stories that the strengths of the book shine through, as the lives of these 18th century tinkerers provide myriad insights into the nature of philosophical and scientific progress.
Astronomer William Herschel, for example, shows how even careful note-keeping and objective analysis is vulnerable to the social pressures of the scientific community. His discovery of Uranus was a combination of luck (he happened to look, possibly randomly, in the right place) and his ability to sight-read the sky and immediately recognise that something was different. This excitement at something new (probably a comet, but you never know) became more intense over a few days as he watched the object’s progress and could see no sign of a comet-like tail. We see this long process in his notes, but then find that over the years he crystallised the tale in the telling, down to one grand moment of realisation, probably because the ‘eureka’ trope was a scientific merit badge at the time. This doesn’t diminish the achievement, but it demonstrates how the pressure to conform to a narrative can subtly undermine the realities of the scientific reportage.
And that’s maybe three pages of the book. And it’s a big book.
It’s full of insights, many of which are the result of Richard Holmes’ digging into the personal lives of his subjects. As interesting as Herschel’s discoveries is his relationship with his brilliant sister Caroline – my personal hero of the book. Her astronomical note-keeping, intellectual prowess and tireless devotion allowed her brother to work on the exciting stuff, while she watched and learned, eventually becoming quite the comet-hunter. Her quiet ascendancy reveals much about the sexism of the age, which turns out to be more complex than commonly portrayed: some scientists fought hard for the rights of women, sometimes in public, sometimes behind closed doors.
In fact, a major underlying theme of the book is ‘I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that’. All good histories complicate, and here we get a frank and honest look at the characters as people, rather than just names associated with their most famous achievement. William Herschel’s discoveries are a matter of record – Uranus, comets, the size of the universe – but here we’re also told of his colossal mistakes (life on the moon, for example). Joseph Banks had a surprisingly liberal approach to other cultures, treating the Taihitians with dignity and respect; except – just occasionally – he didn’t. Humphrey Davy was a genius of his time, and knew it, but always had one eye on his legacy – as a result some people liked him, while others really didn’t. In theory none of this should come as any great surprise, but it’s refreshing to see a scientific history with this kind of anti-conclusive analysis. Was Humphrey Davy somebody you’d want to have a drink with? It’s just a little more complicated than that.
Similarly complex is the overall theme of the interplay between science and wonder. Richard Holmes leads us into this topic by examining his subjects’ artistic sides: many of the book’s stars were poets as well as scientists, and their verses are frequently analysed and compared to the writings of well-known non-scientist poets. They turn out to be remarkably similar, with scientific discovery clearly informing the poetry of the era. But over time we see cracks appearing, and view hints of the impending Romantic secession. But – as you’d expect by now – this process was more muddled than the usual reports suggest, and there’s actually an unexpected defence of the Romantic poets. Keats, Wordsworth etc. do at times display an ironic lack of imagination regarding the nature of discovery, but there are other occasions when the reverse is true. Keats says Newton has ‘removed all the poetry from the rainbow, by reducing it to a prism’, but also writes beautifully of William Hershel’s joy at discovering a new planet. It’s a curious contradiction, and one the book has difficulty resolving.
Indeed, you can sometimes sense Richard Holmes’ frustration at the artistic naysayers, and this is deliberate – he’s trying to investigate and understand, not just present objective facts. At one point he speculates on the reasons Keats can’t admit that Newton ‘increased the potential “poetry of the rainbow”, by showing it was not merely some supernatural skywriting’, and it’s hard not to sympathise with the italics. The writing style throughout is this kind of open, direct communication with the reader, and the book is very much the author telling a story – he’s always popping up in footnotes and asides, acting as the infectiously enthusiastic tour guide. He’s rigorous, too: if he makes an original claim, he tells you its basis; if something is interesting but probably hearsay, it’s clearly marked. He’s not afraid to drop into ‘I went to…’ to provide context, nor to hide his interest in particular topics. It feels like a friend leading you through their favourite tales, and the threads that spin away from them, and as a result the book has a very pleasant atmosphere, without agenda or affectation.
The amount of research is staggering. As mentioned, it’s a large book, but there’s no filler. At times you can feel the pressure of relevant background detail trying to impinge upon the story, as tangents spin off into entire pages, but it’s all coherent enough that the main threads are never diluted – until the end. As the book acknowledges in its epilogue, any wide assessment of scientific history faces the problem of ending. Every discovery, theory and technology feeds into everything else, and so there are no obvious jumping-off points. As a result the book tries to wind down, but can’t help leaving various unanswered topics. This is a fitting metaphor for its subject matter – science is always messy, unfinished and awaiting the results of grand experiments just around the corner. It has to be.
The Age of Wonder covers a lot of ground, and succeeds in demonstrating that the intertwining of science and a sense of wonder is inherent, and undeniably positive. The scientists of the age were agog at the universe, and this fed directly into their work. Wonder engenders exploration, creativity, personal happiness and even positive social change. The period covered by the book saw science come into its own as a vital endeavour outside of intellectual circles: when Humphrey Davy developed the first safe miner’s lamp, saving thousands over the coming decades, it was one of the first, demonstrable applications of scientific thought to the improvement of people’s lives. What had previously been interesting but abstract – Newton separating light, for example – became useful and spectacularly beneficial. This was due in no small part to the frisson of excitement that Davy felt with every experiment. That the Romantics, and their modern-day equivalents, would fail to see the grandeur of such an enterprise is, by the end of the book, baffling. And more than a little sad.
Richard Holmes’ book comes during a renaissance in scientific writing. Popular Science books have exploded in recent years, and the shelves are full of clear, fun, fascinating books on all manner of previously inaccessible topics. The Age of Wonder is a great example of applying the same approach to history, and it would be lovely to see it kickstart a genre. It’s crammed with philosophy, adventure, science, politics, plus some genuinely exciting scenes (the chapter on the first balloonists is properly page-turning), and while it doesn’t come to any solid conclusions on the hostility of the Romantic movement, it forms a compelling argument that the split is nonsensical. It is an ode to a sublime endeavour, and I highly recommended it to every humanist I know.
Andrew West is a part-time photography student and official photographer of the British Humanist Association.