This long pursuit, p.3
This Long Pursuit, p.3Richard Holmes
If this be true; for we must deem the mode
In which Sir Isaac Newton could disclose,
Through the then-unpaved Stars, the turnpike road,
A thing to counterbalance human woes:
For ever since, immortal man hath glow’d
With all kinds of mechanics, and full soon
Steam-engines will conduct him to the moon.
Byron was a little premature about journeys to the moon, though not about steam engines. But his remark about Newton constructing a ‘turnpike road’ of scientific knowledge through the stars with his law of gravity contained another hidden joke, and even a prophecy. For although turnpikes revolutionised coach travel in his day, they no longer provided free transport. All turnpikes charged road tolls to the traveller. Similarly, Byron implied, scientific knowledge might perhaps have to be paid for sometime in the near future.
Byron was certainly right that the Romantic age was full of ‘mechanics’ – meaning technical inventions and discoveries. It is often not fully appreciated, especially by students and scholars of literature, that between 1770 and 1830, the high period of literary Romanticism, there was an explosion of new physical and scientific knowledge. This was not just a question of canals, turnpikes and steam pumps. Indeed, the catalogue of scientific discoveries and inventions at this time is truly astonishing.
The technological inventions, so often overlooked, include Thomas Harrison’s No. 1 Sea Watch or chronometer, which allowed the calculation of longitude at sea, and which was refined throughout the 1770s; high-powered reflector telescopes were also developed during the same period; and James Watt’s steam engine and condenser pump, based on the experiments of Joseph Black, were first put into full production in 1776. The first man-carrying balloons date from 1783; the first Ordnance Survey maps using contour lines from 1791; and the first flush water-closet from 1795. The systematic application of the new Voltaic battery pile, which revolutionised chemical analysis, and with it the early study of magnetic fields, both belong to the turn of the century; together with the detection of infra-red and ultra-violet ‘rays’, that is forms of electro-magnetic energy lying beyond the visible spectrum of sunlight. The first steam-powered ship, the Charlotte Dundas, was launched in1801; the first gas street-lighting was installed in 1807; the electric arc lamp was invented in 1810; and the miner’s safety lamp in 1816. The first polarised lighthouse lens was fitted in 1822; and the earliest successful photographic plates, using bitumen and then silver salts, began to appear from 1826.
In a more philosophical vein, there were the momentous strides in cosmology. These sprang from the discovery of the first new planet since the time of Ptolemy, Uranus, in March 1781; the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Saturn, and within it the planetoid Ceres, in 1801; and the gradual refinement of the ‘nebular hypothesis’, concerning the gravitational evolution of our entire solar system, and by implication of all star systems. From this arose the radical hypothesis of galaxies evolving outside our own Milky Way – for example, Andromeda – and thus the notion of a continuous ‘natural creation’, following an original cosmic Big Bang (specifically proposed by Erasmus Darwin). The delicate question of whether this was the direct handiwork of the Divine Intelligence, or of some more remote First Cause, or simply of Nature herself, was a debate that launched modern ‘cosmology’ as a truly independent scientific discipline, rather than as a branch of theology. One may date this from the published papers of William Herschel at the Royal Society in the 1780s, and of Pierre-Simon Laplace at the Académie des Sciences in the 1790s. The intellectual significance of these developments was considered in A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, by William Herschel’s brilliant son Sir John Herschel, in 1831.
In what was in effect the signature science of the age, there were fundamental advances in chemistry. These finally dispersed the lingering delusions of alchemy, and the ancient theory of the four irreducible ‘prime elements’ of earth, air, fire and water. The whole concept of ‘matter’ itself was revolutionised. Starting with the decomposition of water by ‘electrolysis’ (using the Voltaic battery), which revealed separately quantifiable components of oxygen and hydrogen, there swiftly followed the resolution of a host of new chemical elements such as sodium, potassium, chlorine, calcium, barium and magnesium, between 1808 and 1820. Parallel with this went the analysis of fire as the ‘combustion’ of oxygen, not as the production of mysterious ‘phlogiston’. Air itself was now further analysed, yielding alongside hydrogen and oxygen a whole range of previously unsuspected new ‘gases’ (‘artificial airs’), such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen and nitrous oxide (the famous laughing gas), and an early concept of anaesthesia by Humphry Davy in 1799. From all this arose early atomic theory, and the first published Periodic Tables by John Dalton, naming five elements in 1803, twenty elements in 1808, and thirty-six elements in 1827. Again, much of this work was summarised in the first ever ‘popular science’ classic of the Romantic age – written significantly enough by a woman, and a mathematician – Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834).
This was also a great age of geographic exploration. Many men of science, who eventually became distinguished travel writers, pressed far beyond Europe, and especially to Africa, the Pacific and South America. Among these remarkable scientific and literary travellers were Antoine de Bougainville, James Cook, Johann and Georg Forster, and Joseph Banks, all of whom left vivid and gripping accounts of the Pacific and the South Seas. Similarly, Mungo Park wrote of West Africa, John Franklin of the Arctic, and Charles Waterton of South America.
Mungo Park, for example, a dauntless Scottish doctor from Selkirk, was sent out by the Africa Association to trace the course of the River Niger, and discover the legendary Timbuctoo. A strange and romantic figure, he made two epic trips, the first totally alone in 1794–97; and the second (with forty troops) in 1804–05 – from which no one returned alive. Having glimpsed (but not entered) the walls of Timbuctoo, he was killed by suspicious tribesmen on his return journey, ambushed in a defile of the river at Boussa, five hundred miles from the coast. But he left behind an extraordinary and haunting bestseller, Travels in the Interior of Africa (1799), later published with fragments of his last journal.
Joseph Banks is usually remembered as the august scientific President of the Royal Society, a landlocked position he occupied for forty-two years. Yet as a young man Banks accompanied Cook’s first circumnavigation of 1768–71, acting as HMS Endeavour’s official botanist, and quickly establishing himself as the expedition’s most reckless and romantic adventurer, notably in the three months spent on the isle of Tahiti (where he was the first to record the South Seas sport of surfing), and in the risky exploration of the east coast of Australia. The thousands of botanical specimens he brought back with him formed the basis of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, which under his superintendence became the most famous botanical collection in the world.
But of all the romantic science travellers, none was more influential than Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859). Born in Berlin, he befriended Goethe at Jena, and (like Coleridge ten years later) studied under Blumenbach at Göttingen University. He set out on his South American journey at the age of twenty-nine in 1799, effectively disappearing for the next five years. On his return he began work on his epic Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, which was published (in French) in three volumes between 1814 and 1825, and quickly translated into most European languages. It defined a new inclusive discipline that he called ‘la géographie générale’, which influenced all subsequent scientific explorations by Europeans, including those by Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.
Since the fine new Humboldt biography by Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature (2015), all this has become far better-known. But perhaps still underappreciated is the way Humboldt invented a new, intimate style of personal travel writing. Around
We left Turbaco on a fresh and very dark night, walking through a bamboo forest. Our muleteers had difficulty finding the track, which was narrow and very muddy. Swarms of phosphorescent insects lit up the tree-tops like moving clouds, giving off a soft bluish light … We waited nearly the whole day in the miserable village of Mahates for the animals carrying our forty crates of specimens to the landing stage on the Magdelena river. It was suffocatingly hot; at this time of year there is not a breath of wind. Feeling depressed we lay down on the ground in the main square. My barometer had broken and it was the last one I had … Lucky are those who travel without instruments that break, without dried plants that get wet, without animal collections that rot; lucky are those who travel the world to see it with their own eyes, trying to understand it, and recollecting the sweet emotions that nature inspires!
To write a book of the kind I intended also raised problems of chronology and structure. I wanted it to be a group biography, but one spaced over some sixty years, covering several disciplines, many locations in Britain (as well as some in France and Germany), and linking several diverse sets of friends and colleagues. I wanted the driving effect of a single narrative – the creation of Romantic science – but built out of diverse biographies, with strong local colour and rich in digressions. Above all, I wanted to include the lives of the scientists themselves, their emotional and subjective experiences, their own hopes and beliefs, within the objective achievement of the science they were making. One immediate and important consequence of this was that the book became concerned with scientific error and failure as much as with success. It became a book about science as a human endeavour.
It was important to show, for example, that William Herschel – who first discovered Uranus, the seventh planet in the solar system – also believed that there was life on the moon, and very probably on the sun; or that Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who first crossed the English Channel in a hydrogen balloon – also believed that balloons could be steered with silken wings or bamboo oars; or that Humphry Davy – who invented the life-saving miner’s safety lamp – also missed the chance of preventing untold suffering by making surgical anaesthesia available during the terrible butchery of the Napoleonic Wars.
So I wanted to tell a complex human story, with a strong sense of both comedy and tragedy, within the progressive advance of cumulative scientific knowledge. Great discoveries were passed on from hand to hand (the central collaborative triumph of science), but often at great cost and suffering and despair. I came to think of this unity in diversity as taking the form of a ‘relay race’ of scientific stories.
But the question of ‘telling stories’ was itself problematic. This had been first explored in a brilliant but little-known collection of essays, Telling Lives in Science (1996), edited by Michael Shortland and Richard Yeo. The notion of any scientific discovery taking the neat, closed form of a literary story, with a precise beginning, a progressive middle, and a definite triumphant end, seemed misleading. I associated this traditional type of ‘eureka’ story with the improving genre of Victorian science writing, often for children – as for example in Henry Mayhew’s The Wonders of Science, or Young Humphry Davy (1856). The actual work of scientific discovery rarely followed this pattern, as even Mayhew admitted in his Foreword:
I have found some difficulty in developing my object, which was to show youths how one of the greatest natural philosophers had, when a lad, like themselves, made himself acquainted with the principles of science … I found it was impossible to follow literally the scientific history of Davy’s mind, since he had begun by adopting the most flighty theories. To have evolved all his visionary notions when a lad, in a work that was meant to have an educational tendency, would have been merely to have taught error …
Hesitations, misconceptions, dead ends, rivalries and collaborations, long-drawn-out trials over years, and sudden chance breakthroughs over days, were nearer the truth. Nevertheless, this contingent nature of discovery could well be caught in narrative form. By going back to original sources – diaries, laboratory notebooks, contemporary letters, and early or rejected drafts of scientific papers and lectures – a vivid picture of the actual processes of science could be obtained. And equally important, the feelings and imaginative struggles of the scientists involved.
For example, I explored a technique that I came to think of as the ‘vertical footnote’. This worked as follows. While my main narrative moved forward in a largely conventional chronological form, a ‘horizontal’ progress as it were, the footnotes provide sudden ‘vertical’ or vertiginous plunges down into past history, or back up into contemporary science. For example, when describing the Herschels’ prolonged nights of star-gazing in the 1780s, I wanted to bring home to the reader what this might really have felt like. I described contemporary conditions – the ink freezing on the nib of Caroline’s pen, the layers of woollen undergarments – and then tried to surprise the reader with the same experience as viewed by quite different people at quite different times.
I leaped forward to a late-nineteenth-century British novel, and then forward again to one of the greatest twentieth-century American astronomers. I then broke my own rule about never using the personal pronoun, and added a memory from my researches at Cambridge, in order to emphasise the profound psychological impact of the night sky. After various tinkerings, this is the footnote I finally came up with:
Standing under a night sky observing the stars can be one of the most romantic and sublime of all experiences. It can also be oddly terrifying. A hundred years later, Thomas Hardy took up amateur astronomy for a new novel, and in his description of Swithin and Lady Constantine sharing a telescope in Two on a Tower (1882) he captured something of the metaphysical shock of the first experience of stellar observation. ‘At night … there is nothing to moderate the blow which the infinitely great, the stellar universe, strikes down upon the infinitely little, the mind of the beholder; and this was the case now. Having got closer to immensity than their fellow creatures, they saw at once its beauty and its frightfulness. They more and more felt the contrast between their own tiny magnitudes and those among which they had recklessly plunged, till they were oppressed with the presence of a vastness they could not cope with even as an idea, and which hung about them like a nightmare.’ My own first experience with a big telescope, the ‘Old Northumberland’ at Cambridge Observatory, an eleven-inch refractor built in 1839, left me stunned. We observed a globular star cluster in Hercules, a blue-gold double star, Beta Cygni, and a gas cloud nebula (whose name I forgot to record, since it appeared to me so beautiful and malignant, according to my shaky notes like ‘an enormous blue jellyfish rising out of a bottomless black ocean’). I think I suffered from a kind of cosmological vertigo, the strange sensation that I might fall down the telescope tube into the night and be drowned. Eventually this passed. The great Edmund Hubble used to describe an almost trance-like, Buddhist state of mind after a full night’s stellar observation at Mount Wilson in California in the 1930s. See Gale Christianson, Edwin Hubble (1995).
Finally, to unify the book I eventually chose four key figures, in the three dominant sciences of the period: botany, astronomy and chemistry (which then included the study of electricity). They were Banks, the two Herschels, and Davy. These were not only great scientists, but people who changed the perception of science itself for a general public, and especially for the writers of the period.
Shortly before publication, in autumn 2008, I was asked to present The Age of Wonder to the Royal Society, in front of an audience of two hundred scientists. (As W.H. Auden once wrote on a similar occasion, I felt like a provincial clergyman
These unflinching statistics appeared to excite a first flicker of interest, and even of amusement. I then gave them what I thought would be the most paradoxical and unlikely combination: the poet Lord Byron waxing lyrical – itself a provoking phrase – on the subject of universal scientific knowledge. Again, the stanza comes from Byron’s epic poem of wanderlust and eroticism, Don Juan (1819). ‘Byronic science’ could be looked on as an oxymoron. But in fact, I assured my audience, this was actually a very good summary of the contents of my entire book:
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.
So here was one of the leading poets of the Romantic age freely celebrating the sciences of astronomy, geology, physics, aeronautics, meteorology … and even possibly the ‘erotic chemistry’ of Donna Julia’s eyes. Indeed, did they know that Byron was himself elected a Fellow of the Royal Society? He even had strong views on vivisection … So I wanted them to think again about what science, in general, signified for Romantic writers and poets.
To my surprise the scientists were particularly delighted with Byron’s last line. It suggests, of course, the paradox that human love, the impact of a single heartbeat, might be as great as the impact of that entire body of universal scientific knowledge. I have to say the scientists were very indulgent. I survived the occasion, and the book eventually went on to win the Royal Society Science Books Prize for 2009.
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