Science in the era of bourgeois revolutions

The Age of Wonder:

How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

Don’t let the grandiose and misleading title of this big book put you off. Anyone interested in the history of science during the period between the American Revolution of the 1770s and the European revolutions of 1848 has a lot to learn from The Age of Wonder.

Richard Holmes is the author of fine biographies of Shelley and Coleridge, and his skill in producing engaging historical narratives is evident on every page. In addition, The Age of Wonder raises important questions about the development of society’s knowledge of and control over nature in the first era of industrial capitalism.

The first half of the book is framed by chapters on British scientist-explorers. Joseph Banks led an expedition to Tahiti in 1769–70; Mungo Park traveled through eastern Africa in 1794–97 on a project to find the source and trace the course of the Niger River. In both cases scientific and colonial objectives were closely intertwined. Holmes is aware of this—“there was, of course, an element of imperial competition” he says of the Tahiti venture—but he tends to take it for granted instead of subjecting it to sustained critical analysis.

Between these chapters are accounts of the astronomer William Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus in 1781 and whose speculations about an infinite, evolving universe threatened the conservative establishment, and of the craze for hot-air and hydrogen balloon flights in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Science and fantasy were often bizarrely mingled in the ballooning phenomenon. Equally bizarre were the political overtones of British-French competition. Following the first balloon crossing of the English Channel in 1785, fears of military invasion by this means became widespread. Then there were the vast crowds that attended important balloon flights. “The balloon crowd,” Holmes writes, “(especially in Paris) foreshadowed another kind of crowd—the revolutionary crowd. It contained elements of prophecy, both political and scientific.”

In the second half of the book the chapter most likely to attract initial reader attention is “Dr. Frankenstein and the Soul,” which reconstructs a fascinatingly detailed context for Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein. At the center of the more serious scientific and philosophical dimension of this context are the “vitalism debates” of 1816–20, in which materialists such as William Lawrence and John Thelwall argued that “mind” and “life” itself were electro-chemical functions of the body, in opposition to more traditional dualists who continued to assert the existence of a distinct “soul” or “spirit” on metaphysical and religious grounds.

On the fringe of what was going on in London at this time was an Italian professor of anatomy named Giovanni Aldini, who in 1803 “attempted to revive the body of a murderer, one Thomas Forster, by the application of electrical charges six hours after he had been hanged at Newgate.” One spectator reported: “On the first application of the [electrical] arcs, the jaw began to quiver,…the left eye actually opened.… The arms alternately rose and fell…the fists clenched and beat violently the table on which the body lay, natural respiration was artificially established.” Aldini was forced to leave England in 1805. But the literary suggestiveness of his appalling “experiment” will be evident to anyone who has read Frankenstein. Unfortunately, Holmes’s own interpretation of the novel is quite disappointing—particularly in exploring its political implications (bourgeois science creates and fails to control a new kind of being more powerful than itself).

The two most impressive chapters in The Age of Wonder are devoted to the chemist Humphry Davy (1778–1829). Discovered and promoted as a young man by Joseph Banks, who became president of the Royal Society in 1778 and exerted great influence in that position until his death in 1820, Davy’s early experiments with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) involved important advances in the chemistry of respiration and photosynthesis. He then moved into electrochemistry: In 1807, he isolated sodium and potassium, and somewhat later, chlorine. Davy was also a poet, greatly admired by Coleridge and Shelley, and a brilliant, charismatic public speaker. With an intelligence that moved dynamically between materialist science and imaginative speculation, Davy embodies much of what Holmes means by the problematic phrase “Romantic scientist.”

The most fascinating section of the book begins with Davy’s being asked to intervene in the wake of catastrophic coal mine explosions in the north of England in 1812 and 1815. Having identified the naturally occurring gas methane (then called “fire-damp”) while traveling in Italy, Davy worked tirelessly for months and, as Holmes explains in impressive detail, eventually developed the Davy Safety Lamp. Davy’s own account of this work, On the Safety Lap for Coal Miners, with Some Researches into Flame (1818), is said by Holmes to be “one of the prose masterpieces of English Romanticism.”

Davy’s book provoked “a bitter priority dispute.” An engineer named George Stephenson, backed by a group of Tory mine owners, claimed that his own “Geordie Lamp” was the first to solve the problem of methane explosions. But it was “the genius of Davy,” Holmes concludes, “which had first championed a wholly new way of applying pure science to industry.”

The story of Davy’s safety lamp goes some way toward filling out a thinness in The Age of Wonder about the relation of scientific and technological progress to the early Industrial Revolution (the topic doesn’t even appear in the index). Holmes’s term “Romantic science” is problematic in several ways: No scientist or writer discussed in the book would have used or understood it. If it is to have any cogency at all, it needs to be understood to refer to the dynamic interaction in this historical period not just of analytical rationality and speculative imagination, but of rapid socioeconomic change and bold advances in scientific knowledge.

Issue #85

September 2012

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