Science, People & Politics

Science, People & Politics, issue six, volume i, I (2009).

Explorations of the Heavens and Earth
by Ferdinando Patat


The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes.
Published by Harper Collins (2009).
Hardback price, £25.00.



Being a scientist myself what follows inevitably lacks detachment and objectivity; all the more so because I deeply liked the book. The narrative, so well written that reality seems sometimes to transfigure into fiction, starts by presenting the character of Joseph Banks. This opening is akin to exposition of a subject in a grand fugue, because Banks re-appears from time to time, acting as the catalyst for all scientific developments that took place in England during the Age of Wonder. Then a number of parallel stories, subject and counter-subject, unfold. In a breathtaking sequence the reader meets William Herschel and his sister Caroline. Mungo Park and Humphrey Davy, all like Banks, great scientists and explorers.

From the first page the reader embarks on voyages to the Southern Seas, is flung into the cosmic abysses, lifted high in the atmosphere on a balloon, enrolled in an expedition to the source of the Niger, smells nitrous oxygen, witnesses attempts at galvanic resurrection. And yet, despite the wonders, because wonders they are, not for a single moment does the narrative trespass into cheap fiction or abandon its scientific rigour.

Stating that The Age of Wonder is concerned with the history of science, though true, would be overly reductive. Rather it is a thorough account of the complex interplay among science, art and philosophy. Coleridge, Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Byron, Keats: Holmes unveils to the reader how intimately they were connected, how they were influenced by, and how they influenced scientific thought. I knew this was the case, but I had never suspected the depths this had reached.

The Age of Wonder is not a collection of biographies. It is the biography of an era. Its 470 pages are dense and betray discretely a huge amount of research. So anything I write here is but a pale reflection of the book itself. During those years the Universe exploded. In space through the discoveries of Herschel, in time, with the geological studies of Lyell, and with all the entwined philosophical and theological implications. Again, though I knew this, I had not before met such a clear, exhaustive and fascinating analysis.

The characters spring out of Holmes' pages neatly, and in all their humanity. The account of Davy's early experiments with gas inhalations is so vivid that after a few pages I had to take a break, open the window of my office and breath the humid, cold air of the Bavarian night. Some hours before I had been able to smell the scent of mahogany coming from the octagonal telescope tubes built by Herschel and feel the frost depositing on the fields of Bath during those pioneering nights. I could not stop myself from being carried into a romantic vision of science. I would have loved to have read this book when my passion for science first emerged.

Having devoted my life to astronomy I thought I could say I had - and still have - a true, deep, and radical passion for observation of the skies. But when reading those pages about William and Caroline Herschel I was forced to question that passion deeply. And not only that. The intuition about the nature of those nebulae, the new dimensions of the Universe, the deep space. What the telescope has to show is indeed a long way off, and perhaps concerns us little, "but all truth is valuable and all knowledge pleasing in its first effects, and may subsequently be useful", Herschel's words are still topical, more now than ever.

What is admirable in Holmes' style is that he manages somehow to expose the bare facts, using numerous original quotations and still lets his judgement and opinion reach you without arrogance. In many cases I had to re-read the paragraphs to disentangle his own words from those he collected from daily journals, letters and published articles.

Holmes often lingers on the private aspects of his characters. He wonders, for instance, how Caroline managed the situation where her brother William had to urinate during the exhaustingly long mirror-polishing sessions. Or considers how the liberal sexual customs in Tahiti may have influenced Banks' life. Or investigates the traces of a possible sensual relation between the late Davy and his landlord's daughter during his stay in Illyria. All of this makes the characters real, not mythologized, a tendency present in many biographies. The people Holmes writes of are credible.

His writing includes anecdotes and allusions, often delivered with a delicate sense of humour. For example, "It would take one of Jane Austen's unwritten novels"; "a living creature who is both a spectre and a spectrum"; "This entry of March 1814 is surrounded by sketches of birds diving into water". This sprinkling of marginalia in the text helps the reader to separate the two layers, the present from the past.

I do not know whether it is just because the night is growing old, but I feel that though suspense is created, on purpose I believe, there is a continued crescendo in the book. And I believe this is related to the closer and closer relation between the scientific discoveries and the issue of the essence of life. In the book this materializes through the appearance of the disquieting figure of Humphrey Davy. Herschel had touched on philosophical aspects and had enlarged human horizon to the unimaginable, but his discoveries were somehow aseptic. In contrast, Davy starts off with experiments on humans. While reading about them I felt uneasy. Seen from the outside, it indeed looks like scientists are sometimes mad. Realizing that I am one of them did not make me feel any better. And Davy's connections to the Lake Poets are well established and influential. He himself is a talented poet.

The stormy relation between science and art becomes more and more intense, and the debate's fire lights up. The reader is exposed to the terrifying resurrection attempts of Aldini and feels to be in a tale by Edgar Allan Poe. There is also a mention to the controversial figure of Johann Ritter, who worked here in Munich. I could see it coming: The Viktor Frankenstein's creature. But I had never read such a clear interpretation of Mary Shelley's masterpiece as the one given here, especially because it is given in this particular context.

Great questions about the soul and the very existence of God flourish greatly, as probably never before. An undevout astronomer is mad - goes one citation in the second chapter of the book. As the events unfold this vision is turned upside down, much closer to Jaques Monod's, "a scientist believing in God must be schizophrenic".

With the passing of Joseph Banks, whose "gaze swept steadily round the globe like some vast, enquiring lighthouse beam", the closing pages of The Age of Wonder begin. New actors are called to play on the Victorian stage: Faraday and Darwin.

The Age of Wonder has profoundly shaken me. As the author says, we often ignore how we came to perceive the world the way we do. And we tend to believe science has progressed because of great, isolated intuitions. We often forget that science is built also on errors. This book is a great lesson for all scientists. A must read.

Quoting Brewster: "The history of science does not furnish us with much information (on the processes by which a mind of acknowledged power actually proceeds in the path of successful enquiry), and if it is to be found at all, it must be gleaned from the biographies of eminent men."

Ferdinando Patat is a scientist at the European Southern Observatory.
Please note the dateline should say Volume II, not Volume I.

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