Re: The Age of Wonder

We tend to think of the impact of science on society as something that happened recently, or at least as a 20th century phenomenon. The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes reminds us of how many themes and issues date back at least to the turn of the 19th century.

You read about the exotic sexual paradise and you think, I know this place! It’s the Tahiti visited by Joseph Banks. You read about the brilliant mind confined by a sickly body to a wheelchair. Joseph Banks again. Poets getting drugs from scientists.  Would you believe Coleridge and Joseph Banks? And Humphry Davy got his start messing about with laughing gas. How about the coldly objective observer? Humphrey Davy. The government-funded science project, complete with cost-overruns? William Hershel’s forty-foot telescope.  The age and vastness of the stars — deep space and deep time –That’s what William Hershel realized is out there. The myth of the Eureka moment comes from William Hershel again, discovering Uranus. Even Charles Babbage’s satire of the scientists in the Royal Society — as lazy, elitist, ignorant and largely dedicated to club dinners — sounds exactly like the wizards in Pratchett’s Discworld.

Many images of science in popular culture are recognizable here. Some of them are just that — images. For example, it took slow and careful study to discover Uranus, but the romantic notion immortalized by Keats of the “Eureka moment,” eventually overtook even Herschel’s own memory of the event as he retold it over the years. Others are mostly forgotten, like the poet Coleridge referring to Banks as a reliable source of new exotic and experimental drugs such as Indian hemp, ‘Bang’, and cannabis. And some are still unfolding, like the discoveries of William and Caroline Herschel.

Caroline Herschel (whose name is immortalized on my sadly unused telescope) spent her astronomical career sweeping the heavens for comets. William had the forty-foot long telescope built with the goal of finding out what the fuzzy spots in the sky were. The mirror resolved their images into nebulae and galaxies. Once he had worked out how far away some of the stars were, he used the speed of light to compute that some of the light he saw was nearly two million years old. It was the first inkling of how big and how old the universe is.

Of course, the loudest issue is the place of God. (You can’t get much bigger than God, can you?) It is said that when Laplace presented Napolean with a copy of his Systeme du Monde, Napolean asked where was God in his book. Laplace said “Citizen First Consul, I have no need of that hypothesis.” So for an English astronomer to profess atheism was to be suspiciously French.  They even disputed over whether the word “scientist” sounded too much like “atheist.”

The Romantic era began with a belief in the argument by design, which meant that studying Nature was studying the handiwork of God.  But Davy’s writings suggest a mystical, non-Christian god and William Herschel studiously avoided the idea of a Creator who, if he existed, must be vastly remote in time and space.  But when Darwin published On the Origin of Species, as his argument was tested and accepted, it become less necessary to believe in a Designer to account for the wonderful intricacies of living beings.

Then there’s the theological implications of galaxies. If there is life on other worlds, are they “fallen” creatures? Do they need Redemption? What kind of God would send his children to die on all these worlds? This is still fodder for science fiction stories. You can check the December issue of the SF mags to find stories like  “The Star” or “A Case of Consilience” still wrestling with this kind of question.

The Age of Wonder lives on in the Literature of Wonder.

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2 responses to “Re: The Age of Wonder

    • That’s why the conceit of a planet just swimming into view is silly. The book does a great job of giving you a feeling for what working with the forty-foot must have been like for the Hershels.
      As for the process of discovery, it includes some wonderful excerpts from Caroline’s diary of finding a comet. At first she just notices something interesting. After a few days, she observes it again. Finally she writes, “I SAW THE COMET.”
      Even all caps dates back to then.