In mid December I started collecting a stack of books from Memorial Library, as I optimistically do before most vacations. After perusing the NY Times 10 Best Books of 2009, I checked out “Age of Wonder” by Richard Holmes. Unlike most of the other books packed into my bag, I actually read this one.
Chronicling the “second scientific revolution, which swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century” through the lives of several prominent scientists, Holmes covers progress in a wide array of scientific disciplines.
One of these scientists is Humphry Davy, who discovered that inhaling laughing gas temporarily removed feeling from parts of the body and was actually quite enjoyable to consume in limited quantities. However, several more decades passed before gases were used as anaesthetics in surgery (before this a surgeon’s ability to keep sawing off that leg while his patient writhed and yelled in pain was just another skill needed for the profession).
Along with Davy Humphry, the book looks at Joseph Bank’s voyage to Tahiti, William Herschel’s improvements to telescopes, the Vitalism debate and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and more.
Easily the most entertaining chapter is the one covering the hot air “Balloonmania” that gripped France and England during the last twenty years of the eighteenth century. Holmes calls the competition to make the first flight across the English Channel in hot air balloons a type of cold war (“Some considered that there might be an arms race in balloon technology”) and Benjamin Franklin envisioned invading armies crossing the Channel by balloon.
Holmes writes of one early flight by two “aeronauts” across Paris during which neither man could see the other, being separated by the neck of the balloon:
“This produced a kind of black comedy which was to become familiar in later ascents. Pilatre spent much of his time calling to the invisible d’Arlandes to stop admiring the view of Paris and stoke the brazier…When the whole balloon shook with a sudden gust of wind above Les Invalides, d’Arlandes screamed at Pilatre: ‘What are you doing? Stop dancing!’…Many witnesses later said they could hear the two men shouting excitedly to each other as they passed overhead. They assumed they were describing the glories of flight.’’
Holmes goes beyond the history of science and regularly shows how the work of Romantic poets such as Coleridge and Byron drew inspiration from the scientific work being done around them. For example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein arose in the context of the debate on Vitalism, which asked if there was an “animating power” in nature that separated organic from dead matter.
While I can usually be convinced to read a book on the history of science, the addition of the Romantic poets and the strong biographical approach Holmes took makes this book a very interesting read, and a surprisingly quick one.
I’ll leave you with these recent images from the Hubble Telescope and Wordsworth’s image of flying in a “balloon boat”:
There’s something in a flying Horse,
There’s something in a huge Balloon:
But through the Clouds I’ll never float
Until I have a little Boat
Shaped like the crescent-Moon…
Away we go!- and what care we
For treason, tumults, and for wars?
We are as calm in our Delight
As is the crescent-Moon so bright
Among the scattered Stars.