Most people rush through Grand Central Station, on their way to catch their regular train, or make a subway connection, or maybe make an appointment at one of the station's restaurants. If, someday, you're on your way through the main concourse, and stop to look up you will see the sky. Not the actual sky--there is no glass ceiling here--but an artist's rendering of the night sky, with stars and constellations representing the signs of the zodiac. The ceiling was originally painted in 1912. After years of wear and deteroriation, the ceiling underwent a restoration that was completed in 1998. The dark and dingy deep blue that had been all too easy to ignore for decades of commuters was transformed into a cerulean blue touched with glittering gold stars. This also revealed the ceiling's major flaw, though--that the constellations were backwards. It seemed like a terrible mistake, but the French artist who painted the ceiling had done it that way on purpose; he explained that the design was based on a medieval manuscript that showed how the stars would look from outside the celestial sphere. Others said it showed how the stars looked to God.
In times when the world seems unduly and dully civilized, the sky and stars--even the Grand Central version--provide one of the few constants of wonder. Even with the unaided eye, it's easy to get lost in the dark night sky, the scattered diamond chip stars, and luminous, shifting moon. On a larger scale, it can be almost overwhelming; in The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, Richard Holmes writes how his own first experience looking through a giant telescope literally knocked him down. Wonder, indeed.
I wrote the above two paragraphs almost a month ago. Then I got busy with different little things that demanded more time than they deserved. Than even when I knew I could have made the time, I just couldn't finish due to something like lack of focus, lack of motivation, or just a pervasive wintry melancholy. Does that sound too dramatic? It probably is, but that's the best I can say.
Sir Joseph Banks, Romantic explorer and botanist.
But Mr. Holmes's book is too, dare I say, wonderful to leave hanging like that. "The Age of Wonder" is an examination of the Second Scientific Revolution, told through studies of key figures and themes of the period. In the book's pages you will meet the young and passionate explorer and botanist Joseph Banks, whose experiences with free love and native culture in Tahiti would seem likely to make him unsuitable for life back in London as an eminent, conservative gentleman--which is exactly what he became (although one, no doubt, haunted forever by the world he left behind in the Pacific). Then there's William Herschel, the musician turned astronomist, who diligently surveyed the night sky, discovering, amongst other things, the planet Uranus. He built his own telescopes, including an astonishing, forty foot long model. Herschel was aided by his fanatically dedicated sister, Caroline, who became an astronomer of note as well, discovering a number of comets. Herschel's son, John, became a scientist as well, who led the charge to shake up the once adventurous Royal Society that had become staid and calcified under the aging Joseph Banks's leadership. There's also Mary Shelley, whose famous Frankenstein reflected the period's fascinated and fraught argument about what created life, and Mungo Park, the quiet, determined Scottish explorer, who survived a youthful, bare bones exploration of Africa but died during a well-provisioned, heavily manned return. Holmes also writes about the wave of ballooning enthusiasts, both English and French, who followed and bested the early flights of the Montgolfiers; the balloonists alone are a cast of characters who would easily fill their own book (and no doubt have--I'll have to look into that).
The Herschels' 40 foot telescope.
The most intriguing person in these pages, though, is Humphry Davy, the chemist. Brilliant and inquisitive, with good looks that ensured his public lectures drew plenty of women, Davy won fame not only for his scientific discoveries, but his ability to write and discuss them in a way that captured hte public's imagination. His invention of the "Davy lamp," a safety lamp that helped prevent mining accidents, further increased his popularity. In addition, he was a talented poet, who was friends with the likes of Coleridge and Southey.
His poetic bent makes Davy the embodiment of Holmes's point in this book--that although most would associate science and experimentation with the rational, methodical Enlightenment thinkers, in reality the scientists of the day were truly of the Romantic generation--striving and open-minded, thrillingly willing to step outside of established beliefs, and heartstoppingly aware of the wonders of the everyday world and a yet unknown universe. Davy's experiments with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and its hallucinatory effects seems more like something you'd read about in a chapter about Byron and Shelley than in a scientist's story. But it is a scientist's story, and Davy's flailing efforts in this area sum up another truth of the period, and of Holmes's book--that this was a time of pure experiment and discovery for nothing more than knowledge's sake, where scientists (the term hadn't yet been invented) thought about questions and tried different things, but didn't harness their ideas to practical use. Davy (I believe--like I said, I read the book weeks ago) seemed to circle around the idea that nitrous oxide could make people not notice pain, but didn't pursue that thought to applying it to surgery, a brutally painful process (Holmes illustrates this with Fanny Burney's account of her mastectomy, performed with little more than a reminder from her doctor that it was okay to scream). Davy's invention of the safety lamp for the miners seems like a turning point in scientific thought. A number of deadly mining accidents had caused increasing fear in the industry, and with nowhere else to turn, the mine owners (again, I think) came to Davy, the best-known scientist of the day to find a solution. Why him? Why not, it seemed. With this request, Davy was forced to not just experiment out of curiousity,but to take all of what he had learned and use it to solve a real life problem. And this was the direction science began to take--a way to solve problems, particularly ones that affected business--a very Victorian and industrial direction, as opposed to a purely Romantic one.
Davy's story has two parts as well in Holmes's book. When we first meet him, he is an immensely attractive character, a charismatic, intellectually fascinating young man who rises from a humble beginning in the seaside town of Penzance (do I ever have a story to tell about my experiences in Penzance...) to the heights of British society and the inner circle of the period's scientific establishment. Maybe it was his own background that allowed him to recognize the genius of Michael Faraday, a young man who had little formal education and was working as a bookbinder when he contacted Davy after attending his lectures. Davy offered Faraday a job and made him his protege, an act of generosity that might not have come from a member of the Royal Society who had the more typical, noble connections.
But there's a second part of Davy's story (and by the way, cheers and applause to Holmes for the brilliant way he ends his first section on Davy--great line). In that part he marries an heiress and they have a bitter, acrimonious marriage that is as much the fault of his own emerging difficult personality as it is hers. In this part, he turns on Faraday, and becomes more guarded and defensive about his work. His best science is behind him, but diagnosed with a heart ailment (the same one that killed his father at an early age), he becomes almost a recluse, a wanderer who then produces perhaps one of his best works, "Consolations in Travel, or the Last Days of a Philosopher," shortly before his death.
Holmes is one of those historians who is able to mix the right amount of quotes from primary sources with his own observations, tying it all together into the big picture of the period; he also is obviously delighted by his subject and characters, always a welcome attitude from an author. His book left me wanting to know more about all the people he introduces in these pages, something that is indeed, a literary wonder. I hope you get a chance to read "The Age of Wonder."