Thursday, July 9, 2009

Age of Wonder

When poets were scientists, when scientists were poets, oh what an age!

A new book, reviewed in the NYTimes called the Age of Wonder discusses the age from the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries when divisions between science, poetry, etc., were not so demarcated, but united in common wonder and awe.

July 9, 2009
When Poets Were Scientists and Nature Their Mysterious Muse


How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

By Richard Holmes

Illustrated. 552 pages. Pantheon Books. $40.

William Herschel, the German-born, star-gazing musician who effectively doubled the size of the solar system with a single discovery in 1781, was not regarded as a scientist. That word had not been coined during most of the era that will now be known, thanks to Richard Holmes’s amazingly ambitious, buoyant new fusion of history, art, science, philosophy and biography, as “The Age of Wonder.” And Mr. Holmes’s excitement at fusing long-familiar events and personages into something startlingly new is not unlike the exuberance of the age that animates his groundbreaking book.

In Herschel’s day (and that of his sister, Caroline, who functioned as his doting assistant to the point of feeding him like a baby bird), science was deductively methodical. And astronomy was no amateur’s game. But Herschel charted the skies as if making musical notations. And when he lacked instruments with enough precision, he painstakingly invented a telescope with startling new powers of magnification.

Looking through it, he noted a starlike object, twice as far from the Sun as Saturn, that appeared to be moving yet did not have a comet’s tail. He identified this as the planet Georgium Sidus, first named for George III of Britain but later known as Uranus. (Mr. Holmes is much too spirited a writer to resist making a bon mot about the English pronunciation of that name.)


A particularly inspired section of the book relates Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to dissection, to the debate about the existence of a life force, and to the way fiction writers and poets could invoke spiritual power while avoiding making reference to God. But by the time the book reaches the Age of Wonder’s concluding event, Charles Darwin’s five-year voyage on the Beagle beginning in 1831, it has raised both the antecedents and ramifications of today’s most enduring scientific debates, on subjects from global warming to extraterrestrial life to intelligent design. It is impossible to understand where these arguments are headed, “The Age of Wonder” maintains, without knowing where they began.

I would also note that Darwin was a very gifted writer. Origin of Species is not just a revolutionary book for biology and science more generally, but it is beautifully written. I have read passages from it in my literature class.

While speaking of wonder, I have to mention a friend of mine, Mary-Jane Rubenstein, has a book on Wonder called Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe.

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