When Romance Prevailed Between Science And Poetry

Author Richard Holmes discusses his new book The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. The book explores the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when scientists and artists greatly influenced each other.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

There was a time almost 200 years ago when you didn't have to go to school to be a scientist or an astronomer. You could just peer up into the sky and ask questions and you'll be an astronomer. Of course, there were a few telescopes then, but that didn't stop you, you could design and build your own. Or if astronomy was not your thing, you could start experimenting with nitrous oxide to be a chemist using yourself and your close friend as the test subjects. As I said, formal schooling wasn't as important, but you had to be adventurous, creative and determined and, above all, inquisitive and filled with wonder.

This was the world of science during the romantic era of the late 18th to early 19th centuries. It was time before the word scientist was used. Instead, they were called natural philosophers. And there was no divide between the arts and the sciences, and both were united in their sense of wonder, the wonder of the world around them. The science inspired the arts, and the arts inspired the science. They belong to a single culture.

And for the rest of the hour, we're going to be talking about a new book called "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science." It's not your typical science history novel. There's almost as much wonder and poetry as there is science in the book. It's quite an interesting read.

Let me introduce my guest, Richard Holmes, author of "The Age of Wonder" which just won the 2009 Royal Society Science Book prize. He joins us from London. Welcome to the show, Richard.

Prof. RICHARD HOLMES (Author, "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science"): Yeah. Hi. It's a pleasure to be aboard.

FLATOW: Thank you very much. It seems like anyone could have been a scientist back then if anyone with imagination or enough money.

Prof. HOLMES: That's true. They were an exceptional group of people. But the chemist Humphry Davy had a one-year education at the grammar school in distant Cornwall. It's down on the bottom left-hand side of England. And William Herschel, the great astronomer, was actually a professional musician. He composed. You can buy his music, his symphonies on CDs to this day. But he taught himself astronomy and so did his sister.

FLATOW: And they were not called scientists in those days.

Prof. HOLMES: No, that's a - it's a very interesting - the term natural philosopher really had been used since the formation of the Royal Society itself around the 1660s. And what happens during the period that I'm studying is that gradually a scientist becomes more professional. And there's a very interesting meeting of an internally new body towards the end of the book, this is in 1833, called the British Association for the Advancement of Science. There's of course, an America one now. And they had a great debate about what they should call themselves because natural philosopher no longer covered it. And somebody produced the word scientist of which that was an appalled silence because people said it sounds like atheist. And that's a debate we're still having today.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We certainly are. 1-800-989-8255. Talking with Richard Holmes, author of the "The Age of Wonder" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

What - I noted from your biography that you have written lots about this era. What attracts you so much to this period of time?

Prof. HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, it is fabulously rich. I've written - yeah, I did, oh, a dozen books or so but there - of this period because everybody seems so alive, they're so hopeful. And there is this extraordinary exchange, you know, the poets read the latest scientific papers in that little conference we were talking about just now, where the word scientist was created.

One of the people debating that and he was with the best young scientists of the day, people like Michael Faraday and John Herschel and so on. One of the people was the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge of "Kubla Khan" fame. And he has a very important part in that discussion saying that the naming is key because it's bringing together a number of disciplines: mathematics, botany, chemistry, which had never been brought together in quite the same way under this new term, scientist.

FLATOW: Did they just think of - you mentioned the name of your book as "The Age of Wonder." This allowed them just to wonder and think about the world around them at that point. And it's sort of a stepping off point because that's what they were doing as philosophers and poets.

Prof. HOLMES: Yes. I think what's actually - it's the great age for experiment. I mean, Humphry Davy, I was talking about the young man from Cornwall. I mean, his first job - he works - he's only - he's so young, he's 20, 21, working in an experimental institute in Bristol in the west of England, a great seaport there called the Bristol Pneumatic Institute.

And what they're doing very simply is that they have discovered that the air is composed of various gases and they're what they call artificial ash, artificial gases including what we now known as carbon monoxide or nitrous oxide. And Davy, young Davy had the not unreasonable idea that if you could make these gases purely and get people to breathe them, they might cure terrible diseases like, for example, lung disease, tuberculosis.

And there is an extraordinary period in his life. He sets up his laboratory. He has volunteers to come in to breathe the gases, he himself always test them first. He virtually kills himself with - carbon monoxide. I have the laboratory notes in front of me and there's extraordinary moment where he writes in it, he's choking and he writes, my pulse is 100 and I think it's 140 but I do not think I shall die. And he writes that at the moment that was happening. And among his - again, among the people he was testing these gases out on was Coleridge and also the poet Robert Southey, a number of those young intellectuals of that period. So, there was already this tremendous crossover between the disciplines.

FLATOW: But there were also - he was also having a lot of fun with nitrous oxide, laughing gas, wasn't he?

Prof. HOLMES: Yes. That's an extraordinary story. It's one of the artificial gases he manages to isolate. And he realizes quite early on that it has euphoric effects on people. A number - imagine, courage coming from breathing -I mean, taking opium to breathing nitrous oxide. Very, very interesting. His laboratory notes that Davy records, very - it's not quite "Kubla Khan" but some very interesting lines about this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HOLMES: But the nitrous oxide - in fact, this leads on to a very interesting theme which goes through the book, because Davy realizes that not only does it have euphoric effects, but it has potentially an anesthetic effect. It starts when he takes it while he's got toothache, and he suddenly realize this could have very much wider application. And in fact, he writes and publishes a paper within which he says, this could be used as an anesthetic in surgical operations.

FLATOW: Wow.

Prof. HOLMES: Now, there was no concept of anesthesia. Now, doctors actually looked at the papers at the time thought pain in operation when you were having a leg amputated was positively good because it helped the human body heal, it reacted. So this is entirely new concept.

FLATOW: Wow.

Prof. HOLMES: And from…

FLATOW: All right, (unintelligible)…

Prof. HOLMES: Go on, yeah.

FLATOW: I have to break in because we have to take a break, but it's a fascinating story. We'll get back to it and have you read some of the poetry for the book, okay? Stay with us.

Prof. HOLMES: I'll take a deep breath.

FLATOW: Take a deep breath.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Actually have some poetry that Sir Humphry Davy wrote while he was on nitrous oxide. So stay with us. Talking with Richard Holmes, "The Age of Wonder." We'll be right back after this break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY on NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Richard Holmes, author of "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science." And we were talking about, I guess, the romantic generation of the poets, hanging out with the scientist of the time. Correct?

Prof. HOLMES: That's right.

FLATOW: They were hanging out with them. Basically, what you're saying, you were talking about Humphry Davy and his breathing nitrous oxide and basically passing the pipe around, so to speak.

Prof. HOLMES: Well, yes, (unintelligible) that, but I like the image. And I have to say I've written a radio play where exactly that happens.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HOLMES: But let me just continue.

FLATOW: Sure. Please. It's a great story. Yeah.

Prof. HOLMES: It is a great story because there's a kind of philosophical implications. There are wonderful letters that Davy and Coleridge write to each other about the nature of pain. Why does the human body suffer pain? Is it God's plan that there should be pain when a woman is in childbirth? And some very, you know, quite profound difficult questions.

But at the same time, there's a tragedy here because Davy breaks off these experiments for actually emotional reasons. In short, he falls in love with his boss' wife in Bristol. And he realizes that he cannot go on, he would probably destroy the reputation of the institution. And he leaves and goes to London, he abandons his line of research. And you must imagine, this is in Napoleonic Wars, okay? It's this period.

The number of wounds and amputations are going - the terrible human pain. And if only he develop that line, think in terms of what that would have prevented then to human suffering. And in fact, anesthetics are not really discovered until the 1840s. And in fact, in America, I think it was Thomas Morton in the Massachusetts General Hospital…

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. HOLMES: …used anesthesia to amputate. So 40 years were lost.

FLATOW: Well, could that be, as a theme of your book points out, could that be actually a follow-up because these were not scientists, right? They were not looking for something to stop pain. They were just fooling around with the stuff. Had they been scientists of a later generation, perhaps they would have gone to 1840? Would that be fair?

Prof. HOLMES: Yeah. Well, listen, scientists are kind of, I call it - it's like a baton, it's a relay race.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. HOLMES: And there has to be the right moment - and this is very interesting - was one of the reasons simply that he didn't have the right equipment to go through with this, or was it like a conceptual, a cultural problem people just didn't believe that you could have pain-free surgical operations.

So, that's a very interesting question. And while doing it, he - there were various ways he tested human reactions. And one was on himself. He wrote a poem while under the influence of nitrous oxide. Do you want to hear it?

FLATOW: Sure, please.

Prof. HOLMES: Okay. It's called, "I'm Breathing Nitrous Oxide." The form is very curious. Not in the ideal dreams of wild desire have I beheld a rapture waking form. My bosom burns with no unhallowed fire, yet is my cheek with rosy blushes warm, yet on my eyes with sparkling lust of field, it is my mouth replete with murmuring sound, yet are my limbs with inward transport thrilled and clad with newborn mightiness around.

Now, not very good verse, but actually physiologically…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. HOLMES: …very, very accurate.

FLATOW: Yeah. It's a good description.

Prof. HOLMES: Good - and in his laboratory note, he says when he storms out, when the mouthpiece drops from his - he thinks. He's like got giant parts, he is newborn. And this relates to a whole area which we'll finish up with the novel, "Frankenstein."

FLATOW: Let's take - I have a caller who would like to ask about that. Let's go to Rebecca(ph) in Natick, Massachusetts. Hi, Rebecca.

REBECCA (Caller): Hi, thank you. Yes, I recently reread "Frankenstein," Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and I'm kind of wondering about your opinion about her condemnation of science, maybe man's ego, too much involvement in science. But I believe actually her husband - science saved her life because she almost bled to death during her pregnancy and he know enough to put her in a bathtub of maybe water or something that stopped the bleeding. So, just to see what your comment is on that.

FLATOW: Thanks, Rebecca.

REBECCA: You're welcome.

Prof. HOLMES: Yeah. Very, very good, well done, well-placed question. Yes, Mary Shelley, the young wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she wrote "Frankenstein" in 1880 and I'm able to share that she actually first - very young woman, it's so remarkable. She attended a series of science lectures. And they also, I'm able to show, they were actual experiments going on in London rather earlier (unintelligible) by an Italian called Aldini...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. HOLMES: …where he took executed criminals and attempted to bring them back to life using electricity. So she was looking at all this. And she had the reaction that it was a terrible threat to mankind. But her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was always an enthusiast. He used - he owned a microscope and a telescope, and he followed the work of another figure, very important in this book, William Herschel…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. HOLMES: …who discovered the seventh planet, Uranus, and also established that there were galaxies outside the Milky Way. And Shelley reads all these, put it's into his poetry and also interestingly, writes really furious a atheistic statements saying that this big universe shows there is no God out there. Again, a debate we're having now, I think, Professor Richard Dawkins would recognized this.

FLATOW: Right. And that must have caused some stir, I would imagine, back…

Prof. HOLMES: It caused tremendous stir just as it does now.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. HOLMES: And after all, Shelley was actually kicked out of Oxford University for writing atheistic statements. But he was very passionate about science, knew a lot about it. And it appears a lot in his later poetry, both chemistry and astronomy.

FLATOW: Talking with Richard Holmes, author of "The Age of Wonder." An excellent, excellent book. I highly recommend it. It's just filled with - it really filled with a period we don't know much about but are fascinated about, the interplay between science and the arts and the poets and how one inspire the other. For example, you have a poem in your book by Keats who was inspired to write this poem when Herschel discovered Uranus. And is that right? It was…

Prof. HOLMES: That's right.

FLATOW: And he was - a boy. Keats was around at the same time of the discovery of the planet.

Prof. HOLMES: He was a younger generation, but he was studying. He was a medical student. People forget this. He had a scientific training.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. HOLMES: He's a medical student in London. And he was given a book of astronomy as a price, "An Introduction to Astronomy." And he read about Herschel's discovery. He's very moved by it and wrote really probably the first great paramount in his life, it's a sonnet. It's called "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer."

Won't read it all, but just to set the scene, he says, he's starting to read Homer in translation. And the effect on him is like a whole new world opening up. And then he compares it to two other things. One is Cortez, the great explorer discovering South America and crossing South America and seeing the Pacific. And the other is Herschel, seeing the new planet. Here's a couple of lines from, this is from John Keats, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer."

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken. Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes he stared at the Pacific and all his men looked at each other with a wild surmise silent upon a peak in Darien.

Wonderful image there. And there - this is a poem about romantic discovery. The book, indeed, follows a number of explorers notably James Cook and Joseph Banks. But Keats brings it together in those two comparisons that they - the daring geographical exploration and the exploration of the skies and that this is very, very important to him as to many other artists.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is the number. Let's see if we can get a call in here from Peter(ph) in East Lansing. Hi, Peter.

PETER (Caller): Hey. Very interesting show. I'm very excited to - looking forward to reading the book. You mentioned William Herschel. Was it he or John Herschel who invented the cyanotype and was part of that circle with Julia Margaret Cameron, the photographer, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. That may be on a later period of time - of the time period that you're dealing with, Mr. Holmes, but any insights that you can share with us about that interaction between photography and the visual and the poetic arts and so forth - those characters, I'd appreciate.

FLATOW: Thanks, Peter.

Prof. HOLMES: Yeah. Again, very, very good connection you made there. John Herschel, the John Herschel was the son of William Herschel. And as you -exactly as you say, he was an astronomer. He worked in many areas of science and he was involved with these early forms of photography. And as you rightly say, he was a great friend of Julia Margaret Cameron.

And some of - you will notice this wonderful photographs of him in old age, John Herschel, with his kind of corona of white hair like - himself, like a comet. And he becomes this kind of symbol, the image of the Victorian scientist just like Einstein becomes, you know, Einstein on his bicycle with his tongue out, becomes a symbol of the modern scientist.

That can actually - if I can just expand for a moment on that, William Herschel himself, besides his astronomical work, he did actually discover infrared rays. And indeed, I think there's a new telescope being put up. I'm not sure if it's not called the Herschel…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. HOLMES: …using infrared rays right now, actually. And he had - he worked with his sister, Caroline Herschel, very important. The first, really important woman scientist, actually got a state salary at one time. And they were a brother and sister team. And then this is something I'm very interested -what's the emotional impact of doing obsessive hard work, you know, night after night and so on. And that team split up because William marries and his sister is forced to live away from the observatory.

And there's a kind of a break in the family produced by the scientific work. But then I followed this through, William has one son, little John Herschel and his Caroline, Auntie Caroline, as she becomes, who actually teaches the little boy all his early science and stays a friend with John for life. They're wonderful letters. Caroline lives until she's 90 and she's still writing letters to him and he is still sending her the latest result of his research. So a very interesting scientific dynasty there going on.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Bertie(ph) in San Francisco. Hi.

Hi, Bertie.

BERTIE (Caller): Hello. Can you hear me?

FLATOW: Yes. Go ahead.

BERTIE: Ah, good. Well, it seems to me that in previous generations of scientists, I think of scientists like Newton who looked at kind of the division between religion and metaphysics and science as kind of like division between math which we can measure with differences and that which we can't. And I'm interested in this part, where you point to in which Shelley says this great universe proves there's no God. Somehow, suddenly all that can possibly exist has to be able to be measured with the senses. I'm wondering if you could talk a bit about that point.

FLATOW: Hmm. Good question. When did it morph from one to the other?

Prof. HOLMES: Yeah. It's a very good question.

FLATOW: And what was the cause of it?

Prof. HOLMES: It's a major theme in the book. But when it begins, on the whole, everybody believes, you know, in a designed universe - what we now call intelligent design - and that more discoveries just show the power of the creator. Gradually, as science becomes more accurate and more measured, a more humanist approach is revealed and there are great debates about this.

We think this began with Darwin and evolution. It didn't. It began in the Romantic Period. And on the one hand, the duke of Bridgewater, a splendid Anglican aristocrat, he pays for a number of treaties - they're called the Bridgewater Treaties - which are in each discipline a leading scientist defends the fact that they prove that there was a divine creation.

Now, many scientists wouldn't write those treaties. But people find it very difficult to divide their faith from what was happening in, say, geology and astronomy. Very few people were as outspoken as Shelley was. Baron(ph) is a very interesting case in point who is also fascinated by science. Again, this is overlooked - scientists appear in his great work (unintelligible) I might read you a tiny bit about from that. But he, too, he looks through Herschel telescope. And he has a wonderful response. He looked straight and he said, having seen the galaxies, it seems to me that mankind's pretensions may be somewhat overrated.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Talking with Richard Holmes, author of "The Age of Wonder" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. I wish we had a lot more time to talk about all the characters in here.

Well, one of my - I think one of my favorite is the person you start of from the book, Joseph Banks. He sort of kicked off the whole era that you (unintelligible).

Prof. HOLMES: Yeah. He's a lovely guy. The book, I tell you, it's almost like a movie. The opening shot…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. HOLMES: …is this young, bumble head, tall Joseph Banks, age 25, jumping off Lieutenant Cook's boat, the Endeavor, down on to the black shingle of Tahiti, the black sands of Tahiti. And he is a character, initially, out of another age. He's been educated at Eton and Oxford. He's privileged. He's moneyed. And he represents the old age and central enlightenment.

But what happens to him on the three months of Tahiti completely changes him in the book that he recognizes that the Tahitian civilization is only totally different to the European, that it's valuable in itself. He learns the language. He takes part in the rituals. And from being a kind of smooth 18th century botanist and collector, he becomes what we would now call an anthropologist and writes most movingly about it and makes great friends and it changes his entire life.

When he comes back, he's elected president of the Royal Society. He's one of the longest serving, possibly the longest 42 years. And he becomes, if you can imagine this kind of Greek chorus in my book, because he introduces - he himself finds so many of these young scientists. And as he ages, the younger scientists come off. And I'm very interested in what the effect is for a scientist growing old seeing his work being overtaken, seeing wholly new ideas coming into play.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. HOLMES: Very interested in that.

FLATOW: Yeah. And -as you mentioned, this only last about two generations this whole period.

Prof. HOLMES: Yeah.

FLATOW: Very short time.

Prof. HOLMES: That's right. It is a very short time. It's exactly like the literary period, you know? And it's - a lot of it is a time of warfare in Europe. And that's again very important because the scientists tried to hold together an international community, this great, of course, the French are at war with the British or the British with the French. But Banks and leading scientists in Paris continue their correspondence, continue to exchange results.

Humphry Davy - this is amazing - in 1812, '13, the height of the Napoleonic Wars, he's given a prize, awarded a prize called the Prix Napoleon in Paris and (unintelligible) he gets on the ship and he goes across to Paris at the height of war. He's given a special passport, and he receives the prize.

And there's a lot of humping and grumping in the times back in England. And the French were deeply shocked, but he goes on to do experiments with gases down there in South France and then in Italy, which eventually lead two years later to the miner safety lamp, one of the greatest inventions and doing good -inventions that did good of this period all through Davy's courage and the analysis of gases.

FLATOW: Well, fascinating. Richard, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us. You've written a terrific book. It's a great read called "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science." Author Richard Holmes, author of "Footsteps," thank you for being kind enough to join us from London and staying up late today.

Prof. HOLMES: It's great. I'll get back in my balloon now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah. Talk about - we never got to the balloons. Next time.

Prof. HOLMES: We never got to the balloon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: We'll get there. Thank you very much, Richard. That's about all…

Prof. HOLMES: Okay, bye.

FLATOW: You're welcome. That's about all the time we have for today.

(Soundbite of credit)

FLATOW: Have a great weekend. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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