The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes, HarperPress, 380 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0007149520
A while ago, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland hosted a visit from a party of schoolchildren, who were given a programme of presentations, visits and demonstrations designed to introduce them to science and its practitioners. Afterwards, they were invited to make pictures of scientists. The pictures, which hung in the corridors of several of the college’s buildings for some time afterwards, made interesting viewing. Scientists, we discovered, may be smart, but they can’t do a thing with their hair; they are men, almost to a man, and are frequently found alone, surrounded by test tubes, flasks and beakers of fuming liquids. What was remarkable was the uniformity of the drawings. A whole day of meeting actual scientists had made barely any inroads into the stereotype which, even at such a tender age, they had already thoroughly absorbed.
The images of the scientist which emerged during the nineteenth century have had a powerful influence on our relationship with science ever since. Indeed, they can be more readily understood as coming from our need to personify something which we constantly have difficulty in understanding rather than as having arisen from actual scientists. That is not to say that such stereotypes have no basis in reality. The prevailing images of the scientist which captured the nineteenth century imagination were indeed those of real scientists, but the stereotypes which precipitated out around these figures were not just misrepresentations of science in general, but – as you might imagine – gross oversimplifications of the scientists themselves.
Richard Holmes comes to this area with impressive qualifications. His biographical studies of Shelley, Coleridge and Dr Johnson have gathered numerous awards, as well as a large readership. The Age of Wonder is his first major work of biography in over a decade, and is an ambitious and far-ranging project. The book opens a window into the very period in which contemporary stereotypes of science began to emerge. Holmes himself is not just an accomplished writer (and speaker) but one whose panoramic overview of his field encompasses an almost bewildering grasp of detail. He immerses us in the age through tracing the lives and work of two key figures: Joseph Banks and William Herschel. Herschel will be a familiar name to many readers, though they may only have a dim awareness that he was a pioneering astronomer. The picture that emerges, however, is far more fascinating than that. Herschel was, in the first instance, a musician who moved from his native Germany to take up a series of jobs in that profession, culminating in his appointment as organist at the new Octagon Chapel in Bath. He could scarcely have done better for himself: Bath was by then a fashionable spa, and the chapel an impressive architectural celebration of the city’s new importance. Herschel’s life was to change utterly as a result of his passion for astronomy, his single-minded pursuit of the building of bigger and better reflector telescopes, and the arrival of his younger sister, Caroline, who would be, for the rest of his life, his constant helper and collaborator. It was Herschel who claimed a singular triumph for British astronomy by discovering the planet now known as Uranus (named by a German obviously unaware of the mirth the name would engender among English speakers ever after).
Banks could not have come from a more different background. He was a member of the aristocracy and had the wealth to fund his own scientific research. His defining moment as a scientist came when he accompanied Cook on the Endeavour to Tahiti to observe the lunar eclipse. He was an avid naturalist and outfitted his own expedition within an expedition, bringing with him the staff he needed to collect, draw, paint, catalogue and pack his specimens. His Florilegium, finally published in thirty-five volumes between 1980 and 1990, has illustrations of almost 800 specimens.
Banks’s tale is particularly fascinating for his time on Tahiti, where he plunged himself into the culture of the island, learning the language, studying the customs and engaging – along with most of the crew – in sexual relations with the women of the island. While the world was athirst for botanical specimens (preferably ones you could grow in your own garden – Banks notably introduced bougainvillaea, which he named after his French colleague Louis de Bougainville), it was, frankly, not ready to hear of the paradise of Tahiti, in which uncomplicated casual sexual relations were commonplace and integrated into the social norms of society. The experience seems to have haunted Banks, who found it difficult thereafter to return to “civilisation”. And it was deeply unsettling to the image of the scientist as objective, joined to his object of study only by the polished mechanism of the telescope or microscope. Banks’s frankly penile connexions with Tahitian society were, and yet were not, science. And over the course of the nineteenth century, this position was shored up and codified. It is articulated eloquently by Jung, in his paper Women in Europe, published in 1927.
Even today the European, however highly developed, cannot live with impunity among the Negroes of Africa; their psychology gets into him unnoticed and unconsciously he becomes a Negro. There is no fighting against it. In Africa there is a well-known technical expression for this: “going black”. It is no mere snobbery that the English should consider anyone born in the colonies, even though the best blood may run in his veins, “slightly inferior”. There are facts to support this view.
Jung’s position is a reminder to us that it was not just science that was rapidly evolving in the Romantic era, but the philosophy of science. Jung here advocates an irrationalist position. For him, the inferiority of Negroes or of women was not something to be explored or explained but a fundamental given. In this he diverges sharply from Freud, who belongs more to the rationalist tradition of science. The rationalist tradition was one of universality: that the same principles operate throughout the universe, so that the examination of any specific will reveal them. (Piaget was perhaps the last great scientific rationalist. His experiments used no frequentist statistical inferences, since he believed that he was not uncovering contingent but essential processes and relationships.)
Both irrationalism and rationalism have fallen out of favour as modes of scientific knowledge – though rationalism has resurfaced as qualitative research, and the debates about the scientific status of qualitative research are lively reminders about the uncertainty within science as to what sorts of shared knowledge constitute science anyway. However, it is precisely during the period that Holmes chronicles that science began to ask this very question. Linnaean science was concerned with ordering and cataloguing. It was founded on an unproblematic view of the nature of knowledge which suffered badly at the hands of the British empiricists. It was left to André-Marie Ampère (1775-1836) to formulate a response which summed up the new science: that science does not study things but relationships. This change of paradigm is noted by Holmes:
The notion of an infinite, mysterious Nature, waiting to be discovered or seduced into revealing all her secrets was widely held. Scientific instruments played an increasingly important role in this process of revelation, allowing man not merely to extend his senses passively – using the telescope, the microscope, the barometer – but to intervene actively, using the voltaic battery, the electrical generator, the scalpel or the air pump.
And he notes a change in the air:
There was, too, a subtle reaction against the idea of a purely mechanistic universe … These doubts, expressed especially in Germany, favoured a softer ‘dynamic’ science of invisible powers and mysterious energies, of fluidity and transformations, of growth and organic change. This is one of the reasons that the study of electricity (and of chemistry in general) became the signature science of the period.
Both these quotations are drawn from the introduction, which whetted my appetite for a work that promised to trace the evolution not just of scientific discovery but of our very notion of science. This story takes place at two levels: what science thinks it is and does, and what the public thinks science is and does. The book’s structure, however, makes it difficult for these two strands to be kept in play. Instead, a sense of the wider geography is often lost amid Holmes’s brilliant ability to paint particular landscapes. Throughout the body of the book he interweaves the stories of Banks and Herschel and a host of other characters – scientists, statesmen and poets – with mesmerising skill. But I waited in vain for him to return to the themes of the introduction – how science learned to see itself and how we learned to see it.
In many ways, the character who is the kernel of the book is neither Banks nor Herschel but a figure from fiction, Victor Frankenstein. Indeed Mary Shelley’s creation is perhaps the most enduring image of science that has come down to us – one which has acted almost as a lightning rod, attracting and focusing floating fears. It is first well worth noting that in Shelley’s book it is the scientist who is named Dr Frankenstein, not the monster – Frankenstein does not give his creature a name, nor does Shelley. The monster, born without a soul, steals the soul of his creator. This literary twist of name transference is all the more truthful for having been dreamed up not by Mary Shelley but by popular culture. Indeed it is the very changes which popular culture made to the original which have guaranteed the totemic significance of the legend. The process began almost at once. Mary Shelley was delighted to attend, in 1823, a sensational play based on her novel, the first of no less than five stage adaptations which were to be made. Shelley entitled the book Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus; the play’s title was changed to Presumption: or the fate of Frankenstein. In the original novel, Victor Frankenstein is no mad scientist – obsessed perhaps, but following logically in the footsteps of contemporary science. This was a period after all when bizarre experiments with electricity and corpses were common, most notoriously those of Giovanni Aldine, who attempted to resuscitate a prisoner hanged six hours earlier. The bubbling vials of green liquid are absent too from Shelley’s story, as is his comic lab technician, Fritz in the original play but now almost universally Igor. In Shelley’s book Frankenstein works alone, quietly, a mirror image of the dissectionists of the day, piecing together rather than taking apart the body of the creature and animating him with electricity.
The creature too has undergone a radical change, which began with the first stage play. In Shelley’s novel, he is articulate, sensitive, and thoughtful. Consider this passage in which he confronts his maker:
“Devil,” I exclaimed, “do you dare approach me? And do not you fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head? Begone, vile insect! Or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust! And, oh! That I could, with the extinction of your miserable existence, restore those victims whom you have so diabolically murdered!”
“I expected this reception,” said the daemon. “All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.”
Here the creature, who has no name throughout the work, faces his creator in a way that rewrites the biblical creation story, issuing a challenge – note how he addresses him as thou, in biblical style – to accept responsibility for what he has done. Victor Frankenstein, however, has not the courage to do so, and repudiates his creation.
It is easy to see why the stereotype monster had to be deprived of the power of speech and with it of any sense of morality, let alone a philosophy of being. But the net effect of all these additions and subtractions from Shelley’s original has been to shape the most enduring stereotype of science in our culture.
The first, and perhaps more important thing to note about this stereotype is that the scientist is always fundamentally alone. He lives, if you watch the movies, in a crumbling castle on the outskirts of the village – far enough away to emphasise his social distance but near enough for the villagers to take a stroll in the evening, after the pub has closed, armed with pitchforks and blazing torches. Actually, as I write this, I realise that the first and most important aspect of the stereotype is that the scientist is a him not a her. Curious about this a couple of years ago, I did a check on my computer for the identities of the scientists with whom I collaborate. Almost 70 per cent were women. But the image lives on – the drawings of the children who visited RCSI were almost universally of men as scientists, though they had spent the day meeting real scientists, many of whom were women. It is interesting that an 1890 print of Herschel and his sister Caroline, reproduced in the book, shows Caroline demoted from collaborator to helpmate, pouring him a nice cup of tea. Clearly our inability to think of women as scientists has a long lineage.
And the image of the scientist as alone goes beyond the creation of social distance emphasised by physical isolation (the castle is never in the village) to social or hierarchical isolation – the scientist comes from a class rooted in the hereditary aristocracy, but with the difference that privilege is now based on science not nobility. (The word privilege derives from privilegium, a law affecting an individual, from privus [private] and lex [law]. The idea that scientists viewed themselves as not bound by the laws and ethical standards that govern the actions of others is an old one, and one which causes a conflation, in literature, of the scientist with that other creature above the common law, the aristocrat.)
Holmes quotes Byron’s tribute to Newton, which sums up, in that poet’s typically whimsical way, the Frankenstein image.
Man fell with apples, and with apples rose,
If this be true; for we must deem the mode
In which Sir Isaac Newton could disclose
Through the unpaved stars the turnpike road,
A thing to counterbalance human woes:
For ever since immortal man hath glow’d
With all kinds of mechanics, and full soon
Steam-engines will conduct him to the moon.
Of course the scientist is not alone. Even Newton acknowledged his debt to others in his famous remark “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” (It is likely that the remark is another typical piece of science too – a thinly veiled insult. Newton had been engaged with Hooke in a long controversy over which of them had discovered the inverse square law. All you need to know about the two men is that Newton was imposingly tall while Hook suffered from scoliosis and Pott’s disease, making him a hunchback.)
And herein lies one of the fundamental problems of Holmes’s approach. Fascinating as great scientists are, they do not appear from nowhere and their ideas do not fall from trees. The great bulk of science, then as now, is created by hardworking researchers who will leave little individually but who collectively are an unstoppable and ungovernable force. The study of history by concentrating on the heroes makes it harder, not easier, to judge their contribution by its failure to fill in the background. But such history is pervasive in art and music, where, indeed, the story is often reduced to a canon of “masterpieces” and, by extension, “masters”. Through the very accessibility of his writing and his ability to spin a tale Holmes risks fuelling the same approach to science. There is a sort of vertigo to his writing: we are drawn into the world we are trying to observe, the characters become as lively and engaging as those of a novel and go beyond entertaining us to engaging us. This is especially the case as he follows Banks and Herschel into older age and we see them as they cope with the waning of their physical powers and a sense of being out of sympathy with their younger contemporaries.
But behind the tale of their scientific achievements (and failures) are two more tales: one of what science thinks it is and one of what we think science is. And while Holmes’s book left me with much to think about, I would have relished his summing up on both these themes.
Ronán M Conroy teaches evidence-based health at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. His main research areas are low-cost health solutions for developing countries and mental health research. http://rcsi.academia.edu/RonanConroy