Science and scientists, in the public mind, are often thought to be cold, rational and ….well … .scientific. Others, notably the post-modernists, view science as just another world view, with no particular claims to any sort of objectivity whatsoever. Neither view is correct. They never have been. But they were, especially false during the romantic era, which gives this book its title: The Age of Wonder.
The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, was published earlier this year. It’s a history of western science at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, but is really a serial biography, telling the stories of Joseph Banks, William Herschel and his sister Caroline and son John, and Humphrey Davy, among others.
Joseph Banks was born in England, and he was born rich. Most rich English people in his era would take a tour of Europe, and return home to host functions and entertain each other. Banks said “any blockhead can do that!” Instead, he sailed off for Tahiti, being one of the first Europeans there. While there, he got much more involved with the locals than other Englishmen did; he learned a fair amount of the local language, and he made initial contributions to what would become cultural anthropology. He returned home to become president of the Royal Society. His legend dimmed somewhat later in life, as he became quite conservative, both politically and scientifically. But he had the sense of wonder in spades.
William Herschel was born in Hanover, in what would become Germany, and born poor. He made money as a musician, and gradually shifted his interests to astronomy. He thought that the moon and the sun might be inhabited, he discovered the first nebula, and the planet Uranus. William Herschel also pioneered advances in telescope making. He essentially employed his much younger sister Caroline Herschel as an assistant, but Caroline Herschel went far beyond that role, discovering much on her own, and assisting her nephew (and William’s son) John in his efforts to further astronomy, in particular by charting the stars of the southern hemisphere.
Humphrey Davy was also born poor, in Cornwall, then a rather remote section of England. He made money from some of his inventions and by winning prizes, but after that, refused to patent several inventions which could have made him even more money – most notably a safety lantern that worked safely in coal mines; prior to this, there had been many explosions when open flames were exposed to flammable gasses. He became president of the Royal Society, but was not successful in this role, and eventually retired to Europe.
The Age of Wonder is wonderful. But the sense of wonder is essential to science, not just in the era portrayed, but at all times. Einstein said
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterium. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed”.
Anyone who is interested in science will find The Age of Wonder wonderful.