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Watchers of the skies

How scientific discoveries fueled Romantics’ poetic vision

Joseph Banks was a botanist on Captain Cook's voyages and promoted the work of astronomer William Herschel. Joseph Banks was a botanist on Captain Cook's voyages and promoted the work of astronomer William Herschel.
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / July 26, 2009

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A decade ago the British writer Richard Holmes completed his two-volume biographical study of Coleridge. It was widely and rightly praised. There was a match between author and subject not just in intellectual spark but also in Romantic sensibility, and the result was a near masterpiece of empathy. Though Holmes’s scholarship was rigorous and prodigiously researched, his voice at times virtually recreated the inspired instability of the most visionary of Romantic poets (William Blake excepted).

Literary Romanticism is Holmes’s specialty, with books on Shelley, Keats and two of their French contemporaries. He went on to subtitle two volumes of his memoirs “Adventures of a Romantic Biographer’’ and “Explorations of a Romantic Biographer.’’ And now in “The Age of Wonder,’’ he portrays a brief era of what he terms Romantic science.

The subtitle, “How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science,’’ puts it a little more precisely. Holmes writes how contemporary scientific discoveries served in varying degrees to feed the effulgent poetic visions of Coleridge, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Robert Southey. Also of Keats, who wrote, after reading Chapman’s translation of Homer, “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken.’’

The planet was Uranus, discovered a few years earlier by the astronomer and brilliant telescope innovator William Herschel. And Herschel is one of the three major scientific figures around whom Holmes centers his book and his theme.

In truth, the book is more massive than the theme, which tends to appear and disappear will-o’the-wisp-like; and even when quite there, it can seem fuzzy. In effect, it refers to a transitional time (the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries) before professional specialization displaced a style of individual inquiry that ranged across what later became particular fields, and mixed exalted philosophical speculation with its experiments - and before aristocratic patronage was edged out by universities and scientific associations.

The first of the three principal figures was not so much a scientist as an entrepreneur of science. He was Joseph Banks, hugely wealthy, who used his money and his energy as a botanist to join the South Sea expeditions of Captain Cook. Landing in Tahiti, he all but went native, employing his sympathy and charm to act as intermediary between the sailors and the Tahitians. And also, as Holmes recounts in enthralled detail, to enjoy the sexual bounty offered by the women of the then-unspoiled island.

The account he wrote on his return to England was a sensation; his enormous collection of plant specimens gave him an eminent place in the British botanical world, which in those pre-Darwin days rested more on collecting than on rigorous experiment and induction. More important, it won him the presidency of the Royal Society, Britain’s virtually exclusive channel for funding research and explorations. And for the next 42 years, until his death in 1820, he was science’s great and tireless talent-hunter and promoter of expeditions and projects.

One of those he advanced was Herschel, a German musician with the beginnings of a distinguished concert career in Britain. His passion, though, was for the stars. Discovered on the streets of Bath gazing at the moon through a homemade reflector telescope, he quickly gained fame for the unmatched quality of his instruments and the extraordinary mapping of the skies they permitted. His discovery of Uranus, along with new comets and many hundreds of unknown nebulae, gained him fame throughout Europe, and the position of personal astronomer to King George III.

Banks was also responsible for promoting Humphry Davy, a charismatic young Cornish experimenter who won initial cult-like status, along with a tailing of besotted groupies, by using nitrous oxide - laughing gas - for hallucinogenic sessions. (But failing, Holmes notes, to develop his discovery into a surgical anesthetic.)

He soon moved into intensive chemical research, being the first to isolate sodium, potassium, and other key elements. A celebrity, and knighted, he invented a mine safety-lamp in the wake of a series of horrific explosions set off by methane gas. He also wrote Shelley-like poetry, which may place him, more than the other two, under the Romantic science rubric.

Holmes writes with abundant detail. He has thoroughly researched and clearly explains the processes he treats: how telescope mirrors are polished, for instance, and the workings of the safety lamp. The book’s organization tends to be lopsided. The Romantic thesis comes and goes: Essentially we have three main biographic sections that are both too long (they stray far off from the thesis) and too short (they lack the intensity and development of full-fledged biography). He includes some thinly written peripheral material: a short history of balloon flight, for instance.

Much of the material in “The Age of Wonder’’ is interesting. Much of it, though, reads like sprightly digests of secondary material, held only loosely together by a wandering and rather wispy idea.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

THE AGE OF WONDER: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
By Richard Holmes
Pantheon, 552 pp., illustrated, $40

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