The Romantic period of Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelly in England and of others around Europe is not normally thought of in conjunction with Science.  This turns out to be a lacuna that need not be, as Richard Holmes makes clear in The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (2019,) a fine biographical history of early Victorian era scientists, British and French primarily. With it, he provides a glimpse at the great liftoff of science, began scarcely two hundred years ago, that put us on the trajectory we now are. 

This is not the first “Scientific Revolution, of two hundred years earlier, “traditionally assumed to start with the Copernican Revolution (initiated in 1543) and to have been complete in the “grand synthesis” of Isaac Newton‘s 1687 Principia)  Nor is it, by itself, the full story of early modern science, touching only briefly on the later work of Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday and others. 

What Holmes tells us is, “a relay race of scientific stories … of the second scientific revolution, which swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century,” resulting in what has been called “Romantic science.”

Chemistry as we now know it, scarcely existed.  Those who dabbled in gasses and liquids were teased as alchemists.  What was known of the stars was essentially what had been known since the great Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi published The Book of Fixed Stars in the 10th century

These were the years of the Seven Years War, the American, and then the French, Revolution, the Napoleonic wars.  It was also the age of the great Romantic poets who every liberal arts major in the United States and Europe studies to this day; Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelly, Keats.  Germany, Spain and France, of course, had their romantic poets and painters, admirably set forth in Michael Ferber’s European Romantic Poetry, Longman (2005.)  As Holmes shows, many were swept up, in varying degrees, with the discoveries and possibilities.  In England, particularly, poets and scientists were often in each other’s company. 

Three major subjects provide the through-threads of a great cloth of invention, intellectual ferment, and personality. The story begins with Joseph Banks who, as a young man, was the chief botanist on Captain Cook’s voyage to Tahiti, chartered by King George III, to observe the 1769 transit of Venus across the sun.  The second, a pair of figures, are William Herschel and his sister Caroline who created a new, technically advanced, generation of telescopes and mapped the heavens in meticulous detail.  The third is Humphry Davy, later “Sir,” who opened investigations into the behavior and composition of gas before moving on to chemistry and who, by his compelling public lectures, popularized this new science among the educated elite of England, much in the manner of TED talks today. 

Easily the most exotically interesting chapter is “Balloonists in Heaven.” Following early efforts to ascend to the heavens by hanging below giant paper balloons, French and British adventurers and amateur scientists began an “arms race” with competing textiles, fuels, apparatus to maneuver and methods to control ascent and descent — sand-bags pitched overboard primary among them– leading to both comic and awe-inspiring efforts.  The first solo balloon ascent, following dozens with teams of two and three, reached 10,000 feet in only ten minutes. Huge crowds turned out to watch some ascents.  In 1783 some 400,000 French people (about 1/2 the population of Paris) came to the Tuileries Gardens to watch one launch.   Benjamin Franklin was a close observer, through his own telescope. 

 
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