Marvels and misconceptions in the early childhood of modern science

Steven Micklethwaite reviews Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder

Have you ever wondered why we have concepts such as the solitary scientific genius, the 'Eureka moment', or the great public scientific lecture? Or why the myth that science is an objective enterprise, somehow independent of ideology and society, is so hard to shake? Richard Holmes opens his book with the claim that such concepts were cemented in our collective consciousness because of the remarkable impact of British science on society, during the upheavals of the Romantic period (roughly between 1768 and 1861). He goes on to weave together a colourful collection of biographies of people who shaped the early childhood of science with their discoveries and their personalities. Some of these are household names (the naturalist Joseph Banks and chemist Humphrey Davy), whereas others really ought to be (the incredible astronomers William and Catherine Herschel).

I warmed to this book from the opening paragraph, where Holmes describes his own wonder at a childhood chemistry experiment. And I continued to delight in the book’s enthusiasm and beautifully rounded descriptions of the characters he focuses on. This is no dry tome of sterile scientific discovery, nor is it really just a history of science.  Here we have people vibrantly brought to life; their discoveries yes, but also their childhoods, relationships, personalities, beliefs, dreams and ambitions. As such, the book is able to touch on a broad expanse of themes like the early role of women in science, the ethical implications of scientific practice and discovery, the promotion by the state of scientific endeavours for political ends, or the interaction between science and faith (although in this area Holmes is less convincing).

But one of the best themes of this book is the remarkably permeable boundary that existed between the arts and science. The book achieves this on many levels. We first get to know William and Catherine Herschel as excellent musicians with William pursuing a professional musical career before forging an even more successful one in astronomy (entirely self-taught). Richard Holmes convincingly shows the discipline and finesse required for music was one source for their extraordinary success in astronomy.

Then secondly, the text is replete with quotes from leading poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Percy Shelley and Byron, as they were inspired by new discoveries in chemistry, botany and astronomy. Indeed, Coleridge and Davy had an intriguingly close relationship, and Keats trained as a medical student. Mary Shelley wrote her great novel Frankenstein, partly animated by gruesome public demonstrations of the effects of electricity on corpses and partly invigorated by the lectures of Davy. Finally, the book itself contains many beautiful illustrations, and is constructed something like a play with a central narrative figure of Joseph Banks and (rather wittily) a 'cast list' at the back of the book. The one downside is that this book would have benefited greatly by being shorter. Chapters on the exploration of Africa by Mungo Park, or the invention of ballooning, were interesting but ultimately distracting. The book could have focused on Joseph Banks, the Herschels and Davy, and still covered all its major themes. These are the people most alive in the text anyway.

And what of those myths I mentioned? This was the age when individuals contended in public debates for objective, impartial, independent science. Yet, one can hardly read the hilarious accounts of Humphrey Davy experimenting on himself with nitrous oxide (better known as 'laughing gas'), without having serious questions about objectivity. Likewise, the rich interrelationship between the arts and science, speaks to us of what science really is—a large social enterprise both influenced by and influencing other spheres of life. There is also irony in the surgeon William Lawrence arguing aggressively for science to be free of ideologies (he meant political and religious ideologies), but in the same breath using science to support his own materialist ideology. 

These latter issues are remarkably contemporary in their relevance. Scientists like Davy and Lawrence were captivated by the potential of their science, but they had an impoverished grasp of the limits of that knowledge; namely, science unlocks the processes and details of our material world but it cannot prove that the material world is all that exists. In fact, much of Davy's philosophy seems to have formed in his childhood and not moved on, with his chemistry merely serving to reinforce what he already believed. It is also interesting to find the arguments of Lawrence rehashed now by outspoken personalities like Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins, in justification of atheism.

the tired myth of conflict between science and religion will continue for as long as students remain ignorant of where there has been positive interaction between the two

Yet, in contrast, we find leading scientists throughout history and up to the present day, who express a profound Christian faith, and testify as to how the wonder, and complexity of science serves only to reinforce that faith. Two good examples would be Francis Collins (the former head of the human genome project) and John Houghton (former chair of the Science Assessment for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), both of whom have written books on the subject. Refreshingly, Richard Holmes does allude to how Coleridge also saw no conflict between science, the arts or spiritual concepts of life.

If there is any lesson in this, then it has to be the critical need for scientific training to include the history and philosophy of science. As a geoscientist, I first moved from the UK to work at the Australian National University, and was surprised to find there existed a competitive scramble for students between the different scientific disciplines, such that there was no opportunity for training scientists in the philosophy of science. Yet, in wider Australian society we have a need for balanced public debates on the ethics of scientific practice or discovery—something that cannot happen unless we understand the limits of science, and acknowledge other methods of enquiry also have important truths to contribute (such as history, theology, sociology and philosophy). Similarly, the tired myth of conflict between science and religion will continue for as long as students remain ignorant of where there has been positive interaction between the two. Sadly, “The Age of Wonder” does not touch on this positive interaction either, even though it existed in that era through characters such as the geologist Adam Sedgwick. Nevertheless, the author Richard Holmes does leave us with these words in his epilogue:

   “The old, rigid debates and boundaries – science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics – are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective.”  

I wholeheartedly agree. As someone who attempts to bridge the perceived divide between science and faith, I see an urgent need for this now, for the mutual benefit of both believers and those without religious faith. Such is required to negotiate civil and edifying interaction, as well as a richer understanding of the relationship between science and the wider world of which it is a part.

Dr Steven Micklethwaite is a Research Fellow at the University of Tasmania