The age of wonder, p.1
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       The Age of Wonder, p.1

           Richard Holmes
The Age of Wonder


  One for Sorrow (poems)

  Shelley: The Pursuit

  Shelley on Love (editor)

  Gautier: My Fantoms (translations)

  Nerval: The Chimeras (with Peter Jay)

  Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin: A Short Residence in

  Sweden and Memoirs (editor, Penguin Classics)

  De Feministe en de Filosoof

  Dr Johnson & Mr Savage

  Coleridge: Early Visions

  Coleridge: Darker Reflections

  Coleridge: Selected Poems (editor, Penguin Classics)

  Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

  Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer

  Insights: The Romantic Poets and their Circle

  Classic Biographies (series editor)

  To Jon Cook at Radio Flatlands


  List of illustrations


  1 Joseph Banks in Paradise

  2 Herschel on the Moon

  3 Balloonists in Heaven

  4 Herschel Among the Stars

  5 Mungo Park in Africa

  6 Davy on the Gas

  7 Dr Frankenstein and the Soul

  8 Davy and the Lamp

  9 Sorcerer and Apprentice

  10 Young Scientists


  Cast List





  Frontispiece: A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun, by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1766. © Derby City Council

  Joseph Banks, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1771-73. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Chart of the island Otaheite, by Lieut. J. Cook, 1769. © The David Rumsay Map Collection,

  Sydney Parkinson. From the frontispiece to his Journal (1773).

  A Woman and a Boy, Natives of Otaheite in the Dress of the Country. Engraving after Parkinson by T. Chambers, from Sydney Parkinson, Journal of a Voyage in the South Seas (1773). © Reproduced by permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library Mm.54.19

  Omai, Banks and Solander, by William Parry, c.1775-76. © National Portrait Gallery, London/National Museum Cardiff/Captain Cook Memorial Museum, Whitby

  Dorothea Hugessen, Lady Banks, by Joseph Collyer the Younger, after John Russell, c.1790. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Captain James Cook, by John Webber, 1776. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  William Herschel (locket), c.1760. With the kind permission of John Herschel-Shorland

  Sir William Herschel, by Lemuel Francis Abbott, 1785. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Caroline Herschel (silhouette), c.1768. © By permission of the Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford

  William and Caroline Herschel. Coloured lithograph, 1890. © Wellcome Library, London

  Engraved frontispiece to John Bonnycastle’s Introduction to Astronomy (1811).

  The constellations of Perseus and Andromeda, from John Flamsteed’s Celestial Atlas (1729).

  The seven-foot reflector telescope with which Herschel discovered Uranus in 1781. Royal Astronomical Society. Drawing by Sir William Watson. © Royal Astronomical Society/Science Photo Library

  Herschel’s seven-foot reflector telescope. Whipple Museum, Cambridge. Photograph by Richard Holmes.

  Sir Joseph Banks holding an astronomical painting of the moon. Portrait by John Russell, RA, 1788 © Private collection/Photograph by Alex Sounderson

  Selenographia Moon Globe by John Russell, London, 1797. © By permission of the Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford

  Detail from the original manuscript of Keats’s sonnet ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ (1816). © By permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University

  Detail from Herschel’s Astronomical Observation Journal for Tuesday, 13 March 1781. © Royal Astronomical Society/Science Photo Library

  Hubble Space Telescope image of Uranus, August 2003. © NASA/ESA/STSCI/E. Karkoschka, U. Arizona/Science Photo Library

  Herschel’s forty-foot reflector telescope. © Royal Astronomical Society/Science Photo Library

  Sir William Herschel. Stipple engraving by James Godby, after Friedrich Rehberg, 1814. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  The first balloon crossing of the English Channel, 7 January 1785. Oil painting by E.W. Cocks, c.1840. © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

  The first manned ascent in a Montgolfier hot-air balloon, Paris, 21 November 1783. Plate taken from Le Journal. © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

  William Blake’s mocking view of scientific endeavour. Line engraving from For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise (1793). © Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, UK/The Bridgeman Art Library

  Early view of the earth from a balloon. Coloured engraving from a sketch by Thomas Baldwin, Airopaidia (1786). © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved 1137.c.17

  The first manned ascent in a hydrogen balloon, Paris, 1 December 1783. © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

  John Jeffries. Steel engraving after an original by Tissandier, c.1780s. © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

  Jean-Pierre Blanchard. Engraving by J. Newton after R. Livesay, 1785. © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

  Vincent Lunardi. Print published by E. Hedges, 1784.

  James Sadler, by Edmund Scott, after James Roberts, 1785. © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

  Plaque to Sadler at Merton Field, Oxford. © pbpgalleries/Alamy

  Mungo Park. Miniature after Henry Edridge, c.1797. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Park following his first African travels. Thomas Rowlandson, c.1805. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Title page of the 1860 edition of Park’s Travels in the Interior of Africa (1799).

  A sketch map of the northern part of Africa, by Major John Rennell, 1790. Photograph by Alex Sounderson

  The death of Mungo Park. From the 1860 edition of his Travels.

  Coleridge, by Peter Vandyke, 1795. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Byron, by Richard Westall, 1813. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Keats, by Charles Armitage Brown, 1819. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Erasmus Darwin. After Joseph Wright of Derby, 1770. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Shelley, by Amelia Curran, 1819. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Blake, by Thomas Phillips, 1807. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Young Humphry Davy, by Henry Howard, oil on canvas, 1803. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Rival safety lamps designed by George Stephenson and Humphry Davy, c.1816-18. © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

  Sir Humphry Davy, by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1821. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Sir Humphry Davy, PRS, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, c.1821-22 or later. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Scientific Researches! … Gillray cartoon published by Hannah Humphrey, 1801. © Courtesy of the Warden and Scholars of New College, Oxford/The Bridgeman Art Library

  Dr Thomas Beddoes. Miniature by Sampson Towgood Roche, 1794. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Edgeworth family portrait by Adam Buck, 1787. Michael Butler; photograph © National Portrait Gallery, London

  The Davy safety lamps. Published in Collected Works of Humphry Davy, Volume 6 (1840). © The Royal Society

  John Buddle, mining engineer, with Davy lamp.

  Prototype safety lamps, 1815-16. Photograph, The Royal S
ociety. © The Royal Institution, London, UK/The Bridgeman Art Library

  Unidentified female author, by Samuel John Stump, oil on canvas, 1831. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved 1153.a.9.(1)

  Mary Shelley, by Richard Rothwell, 1840. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  John Herschel aged about seven, 1799. With the kind permission of John Herschel-Shorland.

  The Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal presented to Caroline Herschel in 1828. © The Mistress and Fellows of Girton College, Cambridge

  Michael Faraday, by William Brockedon, 1831. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  John Herschel, by Henry William Pickersgill, c.1835. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  David Brewster. Lithograph after Daniel Maclise, c.1830. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Charles Babbage. Detail from a daguerreotype by Antoine Claudet, c.1847-51. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Charles Darwin. Albumen print by Maull & Polyblank, c.1855. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Mary Somerville, by Sir Francis Leggatt Chantre, 1832. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Louis de Bougainville. Commemorative postage stamp.

  Charles Waterton, by Charles Wilson Peale, 1824. © National Portrait Gallery, London

  Nature Unveiling Herself Before Science. Two bronzes by Louis Ernest Barrias, 1890.

  Isaac Newton. Bronze statue by Eduardo Paolozzi, 1995. © Rob Ford/Alamy

  Hubble Telescope image showing the Andromeda galaxy. © Adam Block/Science Photo Library

  Two things fill my mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the more

  often and persistently I reflect upon them: the starry heaven above me and the

  moral law within me…I see them in front of me and unite them immediately

  with the consciousness of my own existence.

  IMMANUEL KANT, Critique of Practical Reason (1788)

  He thought about himself, and the whole Earth,

  Of Man the wonderful, and of the Stars,

  And how the deuce they ever could have birth;

  And then he thought of Earthquakes, and of Wars,

  How many miles the Moon might have in girth,

  Of Air-balloons, and of the many bars

  To perfect Knowledge of the boundless Skies;

  And then he thought of Donna Julia’s eyes.

  BYRON, Don Juan (1819), Canto 1, stanza 92

  Those to whom the harmonious doors

  Of Science have unbarred celestial stores …

  WILLIAM WORDSWORTH, ‘Lines Additional to an Evening Walk’ (1794)

  Nothing is so fatal to the progress of the human mind as to suppose our views of

  science are ultimate; that there are no mysteries in nature; that our triumphs are

  complete; and that there are no new worlds to conquer.

  HUMPHRY DAVY, lecture (1810)

  I shall attack Chemistry, like a Shark.


  … Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

  When a new planet swims into his ken;

  Or like stout Cortez when with wond’ring eyes

  He stared at the Pacific …

  JOHN KEATS, ms of sonnet (1816)

  To the natural philosopher there is no natural object unimportant or trifling …

  a soap bubble … an apple … a pebble … He walks in the midst of wonders.

  JOHN HERSCHEL, A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830)

  Yes, there is a march of Science, but who shall beat the drums of its retreat?

  CHARLES LAMB, shortly before his death (1834)



  In my first chemistry class, at the age of fourteen, I successfully precipitated a single crystal of mineral salts. This elementary experiment was done by heating a solution of copper sulphate (I think) over a Bunsen burner, and leaving it to cool overnight. The next morning there it lay at the bottom of my carefully labelled test tube: a single beautiful crystal, the size of a flattened Fox’s Glacier Mint, a miniature ziggurat with a faint blue opalescence, propped up against the inside of the glass (too big to lie flat), monumental and mysterious to my eyes. No one else’s test tube held anything but a few feeble grains. I was triumphant, my scientific future assured. But it turned out that the chemistry master did not believe me. The crystal was too big to be true. He said (not at all unkindly) that I had obviously faked it, and slipped a piece of coloured glass into the test tube instead. It was quite a good joke. I implored him, ‘Oh, test it, sir; just test it!’ But he refused, and moved on to other matters. In that moment of helpless disappointment I think I first glimpsed exactly what real science should be. To add to it, years later I learned the motto of the Royal Society: Nullius in Verba – ‘Nothing upon Another’s Word’. I have never forgotten this incident, and have often related it to scientific friends. They nod sympathetically, though they tend to add that I did not (as a matter of chemical fact) precipitate a crystal at all — what I did was to seed one, a rather different process. No doubt this is so. But the eventual consequence, after many years of cooling, has certainly been to precipitate this book.


  The Age of Wonder is a relay race of scientific stories, and they link together to explore a larger historical narrative. This is my account of the second scientific revolution, which swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, and produced a new vision which has rightly been called Romantic science.1

  Romanticism as a cultural force is generally regarded as intensely hostile to science, its ideal of subjectivity eternally opposed to that of scientific objectivity. But I do not believe this was always the case, or that the terms are so mutually exclusive. The notion of wonder seems to be something that once united them, and can still do so. In effect there is Romantic science in the same sense that there is Romantic poetry, and often for the same enduring reasons.

  The first scientific revolution, of the seventeenth century, is familiarly associated with the names of Newton, Hooke, Locke and Descartes, and the almost simultaneous foundations of the Royal Society in London and the Académie des Sciences in Paris. Its existence has long been accepted, and the biographies of its leading figures are well known.♣ But this second revolution was something different. The first person who referred to a ‘second scientific revolution’ was probably the poet Coleridge in his Philosophical Lectures of 1819.2 It was inspired primarily by a sudden series of breakthroughs in the fields of astronomy and chemistry. It was a movement that grew out of eighteenth-century Enlightenment rationalism, but largely transformed it, by bringing a new imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work. It was driven by a common ideal of intense, even reckless, personal commitment to discovery.

  It was also a movement of transition. It flourished for a relatively brief time, perhaps two generations, but produced long-lasting consequences — raising hopes and questions — that are still with us today. Romantic science can be dated roughly, and certainly symbolically, between two celebrated voyages of exploration. These were Captain James Cook’s first round-the-world expedition aboard the Endeavour, begun in 1768, and Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos islands aboard the Beagle, begun in 1831. This is the time I have called the Age of Wonder, and with any luck we have not yet quite outgrown it.

  The idea of the exploratory voyage, often lonely and perilous, is in one form or another a central and defining metaphor of Romantic science. That is how William Wordsworth brilliantly transformed the great Enlightenment image of Sir Isaac Newton into a Romantic one. While a university student in the 1780s Wordsworth had often contemplated the full-size marble statue of Newton, with his severely close-cropped hair, that still dominates the stone-flagged entrance hall to the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge. As Wordsworth originally put it, he could see, a few y
ards from his bedroom window, over the brick wall of St John’s College,

  The Antechapel, where the Statue stood

  Of Newton, with his Prism and silent Face.

  Sometime after 1805, Wordsworth animated this static figure, so monumentally fixed in his assured religious setting. Newton became a haunted and restless Romantic traveller amidst the stars:

  And from my pillow, looking forth by light

  Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold

  The Antechapel where the Statue stood

  Of Newton, with his prism and his silent face,

  The marble index of a Mind for ever

  Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.3

  Around such a vision Romantic science created, or crystallised, several other crucial conceptions — or misconceptions — which are still with us. First, the dazzling idea of the solitary scientific ‘genius’, thirsting and reckless for knowledge, for its own sake and perhaps at any cost. This neo-Faustian idea, celebrated by many of the imaginative writers of the period, including Goethe and Mary Shelley, is certainly one of the great, ambiguous creations of Romantic science which we have all inherited. Closely connected with this is the idea of the ‘Eureka moment’, the intuitive inspired instant of invention or discovery, for which no amount of preparation or preliminary analysis can really prepare. Originally the cry of the Greek philosopher Archimedes, this became the ‘fire from heaven’ of Romanticism, the other true mark of scientific genius, which also allied it very closely to poetic inspiration and creativity. Romantic science would seek to identify such moments of singular, almost mystical vision in its own history. One of its first and most influential examples was to become the story of the solitary, brooding Newton in his orchard, seeing an apple fall and ‘suddenly’ having his vision of universal gravitation.

  This story was never told by Newton at the time, but only began to emerge in the mid-eighteenth century, in a series of memoirs and reminiscences.♣

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