Monday, July 13, 2009

Science, poetry, and ficton in the 'age of wonder'

This looks fantastic and has been getting fantastic reviews: The Age of Wonder: How the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science by Richard Holmes. Here is a review from the New York Times (tip from Laura Sizer):
William Herschel, the German-born, star-gazing musician who effectively doubled the size of the solar system with a single discovery in 1781, was not regarded as a scientist. That word had not been coined during most of the era that will now be known, thanks to Richard Holmes’s amazingly ambitious, buoyant new fusion of history, art, science, philosophy and biography, as “The Age of Wonder.” And Mr. Holmes’s excitement at fusing long-familiar events and personages into something startlingly new is not unlike the exuberance of the age that animates his groundbreaking book.

In Herschel’s day (and that of his sister, Caroline, who functioned as his doting assistant to the point of feeding him like a baby bird), science was deductively methodical. And astronomy was no amateur’s game. But Herschel charted the skies as if making musical notations. And when he lacked instruments with enough precision, he painstakingly invented a telescope with startling new powers of magnification.

Looking through it, he noted a starlike object, twice as far from the Sun as Saturn, that appeared to be moving yet did not have a comet’s tail. He identified this as the planet Georgium Sidus, first named for George III of Britain but later known as Uranus.
Beyond enlivening the story of Herschel’s discovery into a gripping narrative, this book speculates fascinatingly about the ramifications of such a breakthrough. Thanks to Herschel the idea of a fixed universe was challenged, replaced by a cosmos in flux. Was that cause for wonder or terror? What were its theological implications? How would it influence a future generation of poets? (The thrill of this breakthrough would later figure in one of Keats’s most famous sonnets, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.”) Where would it figure in the relay race of scientific discoveries?
Actually, even more dramatic was the discovery of Neptune - since it was predicted by mathematical calculation rather than empirical observations. Just think about it. In the 19th century, astronomers predict not only that there is an unseen planet out in space but they also predict its location! A phenomenal case for the power of scientific predictions. But we are getting sidetracked here. Back to the The Age of Wonder:
A particularly inspired section of the book relates Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to dissection, to the debate about the existence of a life force, and to the way fiction writers and poets could invoke spiritual power while avoiding making reference to God. But by the time the book reaches the Age of Wonder’s concluding event, Charles Darwin’s five-year voyage on the Beagle beginning in 1831, it has raised both the antecedents and ramifications of today’s most enduring scientific debates, on subjects from global warming to extraterrestrial life to intelligent design. It is impossible to understand where these arguments are headed, “The Age of Wonder” maintains, without knowing where they began.
The bit about the existence of a life force is interesting - and, of course, it also played out in debates over biology. I think it was in the middle of the 19th century when it was shown that lifeforms are actually made up of chemical elements (Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, etc.) quite common in the universe - thus providing the foundations for the origin of life research. In addition, the 18th/19th century debates about extraterrestrials were fascinating. I will have a separate post on this topic later. I recently bought The Extraterrestrial Life Debate: 1750-1900 by Michael Crowe and I plan to use readings from it for my spring semester class, Aliens: Close encounters of a multidisciplinary kind.

Read the full review of The Age of Wonder here and an excerpt from the book here.


Matthew said...

This is slightly offtopic, but close. I read Jenny Uglow's "The Lunar Men" a few years ago, which highlighted the lives of British scientists of that same (or slightly earlier) era. I enjoyed the book. It was a remarkable time in science.

I think it's been remaindered now, so it should be easy and inexpensive to find a copy.

(Now I'm curious whether there's a popular biography of Argelander? If not, I'm wondering if I should write one...)

Salman Hameed said...

Nope, haven't read it. I saw it for sale yesterday at the Down House gift shop (more on that later). And, yes, Matt, you should write the biography...

Matthew said...

Right after I posted that I realized that in order to write a biography a of a German person, it would probably be a necessity to be able to read the German language more competently than I do....

I would buy the Uglow book here, if only because it weighs several kilos in hardback.

Have fun in the UK!