Richard Holmes is well known (though not by me) for his biographies of Shelley and Coleridge and here he moves from the romantic poets to the scientists of the romantic era. He endeavours to trace the ancestry of our modern image of "the scientist": he examines the point at which the natural philosopher at home with both the arts and the sciences (eg Herschel, musician turned astronomer; Davy, poet turned chemist; Coleridge, dilettante scientist turned poet) was replaced by the two persons of Snow's Two Cultures; he decribes the genesis of the myth of the mad scientist in Victor Frankenstein; and he charts the growing atheism inherent in the discoveries that made a Creator more and more remote.
But best of all the book has vivid stories and personalities which Holmes brilliantly brings to life (even though he quotes far too much from Davy's poetry!)
He starts with Joseph Banks with Captain Cook savouring the delights of that Pacific paradise, Tahiti. We then move onto the story of William Herschel and his discovery of Uranus. Ballooning comes next, then Mungo Park explores Africa; Sir Humphrey Davy invesitigates Laughing Gas; Mary Shelley writes Frankenstein; Davy invents the Safety Lamp and then falls out with everyone including his wife and Michael Faraday and finally the era closes with Charles Babbage and young Sir John Herschel leading towards Charles Darwin.
Here is a selection of my favourite bits which I marked.
p83: In 1772, William Herschel, having decided to grind his own lenses to make a reflecting telescope in Bath (where he conducts concerts in the Pump Rooms) buys grinding and polishing tools from John Michel, "a Quaker astronomer who had retired to Bath nursing some strange, unacceptable ideas - such as the existence of 'black holes' in space from which light itself could not escape".
p94: Perhaps there is room for a History of Scientific Error which could show that mistakes in Science are at least as influential to the progress of right ideas as the triumphs. In a footnote, Holmes points out that Romantic Science created three myths: the lone scientific genius, the Eureka moment and the Frankenstein nightmare.
p101: In 1781, Herschel having discovered Uranus he went to London to meet "wealthy Deptford astronomer Alexander Aubert" and to dine with Sir Joseph Banks at the "Mitre Club, a tavern much favoured by Dr Johnson." NB: Herschel used lenses made by Dollond whose company, founded in the 1750s, later grew into Dollond and Aitchison!
p106: The publisher Joseph Johnson of St Paul's Churchyard not only published an influential History of Astronomy by Bonnycraft but also published William Blake, William Godwin, William Wordsworth, Mary Wollstonecraft and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
p111: On 31st July 1782 the Herschel's went to live in Datchet. Later they moved to Slough.
p113: In 1811 Keats won A History of Astronomy by Bonnycraft as a school prize; he then went on to compose On looking into Chapman's Homer in 1816 in which he describes Herschel's discovery of Uranus: "Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken"
p132 On 1st December 1783 (ten days after the Montgolfier hot air balloon) the first hydrogen ballon was launched by Dr Charles from the Tuileries in front of a crowd estimated at 400,000; Benjamin Franklin, US ambassador in Paris watched it and was asked what use it was: he replied: "What's the use of a newborn baby?" I previousl;y believed this to be something Faraday said.
p152: Jean-Pierre Blanchard, the first man to cross the English Channel by balloon in 1785, later founded a "Balloon Academy on the Stockwell Road in Vauxhall".
p156: Napoleon took 4 balloons with him to Egypt in 1798 but they were destroyed by Nelson at the Battle of Aboukir.
p198 Pierre Laplace who, in 1799, used Herschel's nebula theory of star formation to explain the formation of the solar system, was asked by Napoleon where God was in his work and replied "Citizen First Consul, I have no need of that hypothesis."
p199: Herschel also discovered infra-red light in 1800.
p250: In 1797 Gregory Watt, son of James, lodged with Grace Davy, mother of Humphrey. Later Gregory would pass Humphrey's name on to his dad who i n turn recommended him to Dr Thomas Beddoes of Cliftonm near Bristol who then employed Humphrey as lab assistant at his (slightly quackish) pneumatic hospital in which Humphrey investigated the treatment of diseases using gases including Carbon Monoxide (which nearly killed Davy) and Laughing Gas (which made his reputation).
p291: By 1803 Davy had moved to London and was giving incredibl;y popular science lectures at the Royal Institution (one included the concept of the carbon cycle). These were so popular that Albemarle Street became the first One-Way street to control carriage congestion.
p295: Humphrey Davy gave 5 Bakerian lectures at the Royal Society between 1806 and 1810. These lectures had been founded in 1775 by Daniel Defoe's son-in-law. In the first lecture Davy argued that the different forms of electricity (in Leyden jars, and generated by Voltaic piles, stormclouds, electric eels, and by friction) were all the same and were a form of bipolar (postive and negative) energy.
p308: surgeon John Hunter dissected bodies in Great Windmill Street in Soho.
p328-330: Victor Frankenstein may have been based on Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776 - 1810) who invented the dry-cell storage battery and discovered ultra-violet light in 1803 worked at Jena using huge Voltaic piles to galvanise animal corpses. He then moved to Munich to continue experiments that were described as "most convincing" and "disgusting"; abandoned his wife and three children and died penniless and insane in 1810 aged 33.
p338: Humphrey Davy married Jane Apreece who, during her lonely 1st marriage, went to Geneva and made friends with Madame de Stael becoming the heroine of Corinne.
p383: Greenland pack-ice melted in 1815 and was believed to be a precursor of climate change.
p420: Andrew Crosse, who lived at Fyne Court in the Quantocks, had installed in his ballroom an "'extensive philosophic apparatus' with which he later claimed to have generated spontaneous life forms .... It contained large, gleaming electrical condensers, which were linked to a network of copper wires strung through the trees .... designed to pick up massive charges of static or 'atmospheric' electricity. The largest condenser was marked with a blasphemous warning notice: Noli Me Tangere - that is,m 'Do not Touch Me' .... the risen Christ's first words to Mary Magdalene". So he could have been the original of Dr Frankenstein.
p441: Sir John Herschel wrote a philosophy of natural science in which he reckoned the scientific method to be tripartite: the inductive gathering of facts, the emergence of a general hypothesis and the testing of that hypothesis.
p448: Coleridge, aged 60, attended the third meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Cambridge in 1833.
p460: David Brewster, more famous for his work on polarisation, invented the kaleidoscope.
A brilliant book.
Januray 2010; 469 pages.
I have now read Holmes' biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: also worth a read!
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57