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Science Was A Muse To Inspire Romantic Art

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Science Was A Muse To Inspire Romantic Art

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Science Was A Muse To Inspire Romantic Art

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(Soundbite of music, "Symphony Number 13 in D Major")

GUY RAZ, host:

We're listening to William Herschel's "Symphony Number 13 in D Major." Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany, in 1738. He was a musician by training and settled in England as a young man. But later in life, he fell in love with the cosmos. And one night in March 1781, while sweeping the skies with a telescope, William Herschel made a discovery that doubled the known size of the solar system.

Professor RICHARD HOLMES (Author, "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science"): What in fact he had observed was the seventh planet in the solar system, beyond Jupiter and Saturn, and the first new planet to be discovered for over a thousand years since Ptolemy. He would name it patriotically after the Hanoverian king Georgium Sidus, George's Star. But it eventually became known to European astronomers as Uranus. Urania was the goddess of astronomy and the new planet was seen to mark a rebirth in her science.

RAZ: That's Richard Holmes reading from his book, "The Age of Wonder." It's a history of the men and women whose discoveries shaped the Romantic Age of Science. Richard Holmes is in our London studio. Welcome to the program.

Professor HOLMES: Hi, it's a great pleasure to be here.

RAZ: Richard Holmes, your book begins with Captain James Cook's voyage to Tahiti in 1769 and then ends with Charles Darwin's journey to the Galapagos in 1831. Now, in between, you described this period as the Romantic Age of Science. Can you describe what was happening at the time?

Professor HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, for most people, this period really is the great Romantic period in literature, which we associate with Wordsworth and Coleridge and Shelley and Byron and Keats. These are people who I have written about for most of my career, really. But it gradually came clear to me that the scientific breakthroughs in this period had a major effect on how people saw the world and the universe, and also how people wrote about it.

RAZ: And there was almost a kind of a do-it-yourself ethic, that anyone with curiosity and some intelligence could really make Earth-shattering discoveries at the time.

Professor HOLMES: Yes. I mean, let's just take Herschel, the astronomer. I mean, he was trained as a musician, and we heard that wonderful bit of his symphony. And he earned his bread up to the age of 40 as a composer and as a music teacher. But at the same time, he was starting to build what we'd call homemade telescopes, and what he did was something very radical.

Normally, telescopes are with two lenses. He built them out of a single mirror. They were metal mirrors. He cast it in his basement kitchen. It still exists down in the City of Bath, this basement kitchen. And the stone floors are still cracked where some of his castings, this red-hot metal, spilled, and in great peril to all those around, fell to the floor and split the stone.

RAZ: And you write that he poured this molten metal into casts of horse dung, pounded horse dung.

Professor HOLMES: That's right. He found a way of casting mirrors, and the great thing was to polish them. They had to be polished to make an exact concave shape so they would reflect and intensify the starlight. And some of these polishings went on - can you believe this - not for two or three hours. There's one which went on for 16 hours without a break.

And here's an interesting part of the biographical story: he was helped by his sister...

RAZ: Hmm.

Professor HOLMES: …a very important person in the book, young Caroline Herschel. And in this particular instance, in her journal, she describes how for during that 16 hours, she put food in his mouth to keep him going…

(Soundbite of laughter)

…and read from the "Arabian Nights."

RAZ: Now, as you say, I mean, William Herschel and his sister, Caroline, were really a team. It was the two of them who made all of these incredible astronomical discoveries.

Professor HOLMES: Yeah, they go on. They built bigger and bigger telescopes. The biggest one was 40 foot in height, enormous, like a three-story building. And what he discovered was not any new planet, but he was the first person to define the shape of the Milky Way. And then with his enormous telescope, he saw that there were other galaxies, like Andromeda, outside the Milky Way. And from that came an entirely new idea of the size of the universe.

And also, very interesting concepts like what we'd now call Deep Time. He writes papers saying, when we look through my big telescope, we're not only looking into a distant universe, we're looking into the past, because the light of the stars may take millions and millions of years to arrive at the Earth. So very modern concepts, which had a very powerful impact on two or three generations of Romantic writers at that time.

RAZ: Richard Holmes, another scientist you write about is Humphry Davy. And you describe him as a sort of father of modern chemistry.

Professor HOLMES: Yeah. As a very young man, he was brought to the City of Bristol. And there, he was experimenting with gases on himself. They were just beginning to define what things like carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide were. Some of them, of course, are fatal to inhale. He very nearly killed himself inhaling carbon monoxide. But he had a series of successful experiments with nitrous oxide, which we know as laughing gas…

RAZ: Hmm.

Professor HOLMES: …which actually it will be eventually a form of anesthetic.

But the picture I want to give you here is he, in a very modern way, called on volunteers to experiment with the gases. And one of them was the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who became a great friend of his.

And you need to imagine that all the laboratory papers are there. I've seen them and I used them in the book. This extraordinary moment when the great Romantic poet, fresh from his opium experiments, fresh from writing the poem "Kubla Khan," goes into the laboratory at Bristol and breathes his experimental gases, and then gives his description of what physical and psychological effect they have on him.

RAZ: Richard Holmes, you write about how Coleridge and many other Romantic Age poets in Britain sort of saw an affinity between poetry and science.

Professor HOLMES: That's right. I mean, it's very, very striking. We started off with Coleridge and his great friendship with Humphry Davy, but also people like Shelley, for example, followed Herschel's astronomy very, very closely. And in his poems, he often added notes, which referred to Herschel's discoveries.

For Shelley, Herschel's discovery proved the universe was too big to have been created by God. Now, a very interesting argument here. Shelley was a very fierce atheist and he used Herschel's science to argue that there was no creator, there was no Biblical creation.

RAZ: Richard Holmes, the subtitle of your book is "How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science." We've talked about the beauty. What do you mean by the terror of science?

Professor HOLMES: I think one of themes going through the book: with every invention, every discovery, there is hope, the hope of benefiting mankind, but often there are threats or menaces.

The whole story of "Frankenstein" is almost a myth of that threat. But we see that even in quite innocent ways, where the new astronomy produced by William Herschel actually frightened people. This big idea of the universe which did not compare with the old, in a way, intimate and affectionate Biblical account. It made the universe seem much more frightening, much more empty, maybe much more hostile.

And again and again, you see this in the scientific breakthroughs. They both promise new knowledge and benefits, but they also raise certain fears and anxieties. And I think that's something we've completely inherited.

RAZ: Richard Holmes's book is called "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science." He joined me from London.

Richard Holmes, thanks.

Professor HOLMES: Thank you very much.

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