In a letter dated 1800, the great Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, "I shall attack Chemistry, like a Shark." John Keats' famous 1816 sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" celebrated the recent discovery of Uranus — the first new planet to be found in more than a thousand years. In fact, says author Richard Holmes, the scientific discoveries of the Romantic age inspired generations of great artists and their work.
Holmes is the author of the book The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. He says the book is constructed as a "relay race" of scientific stories that span the years between botanist Joseph Banks' voyage to Tahiti in 1769 and Charles Darwin's journey to the Galapagos in 1831.
"For most people, this period really is the great Romantic period in literature, which we associate with Wordsworth and Coleridge and Shelley and Byron and Keats," Holmes tells host Guy Raz. "But it gradually became clear to me that the scientific breakthroughs in this period had a major effect on how people saw the world and the universe and also how people wrote about it."
Those breakthroughs included amateur astronomer William Herschel's discovery of Uranus, the seventh planet, in 1781. But Herschel himself was an unlikely discoverer. He was a German immigrant who settled in England as a young man, a musician by training and a composer and music teacher by day. But at night, Holmes says, Herschel and his younger sister Caroline spent hours scouring the sky. William Herschel used to rub raw onions on his hands to stave off the cold. Caroline wore layers of woolen petticoats.
The key to their discoveries, Holmes tells Guy Raz, was the radical construction of their homemade telescopes. Instead of traditional refractor telescopes, the Herschels made reflector telescopes using large mirrors cast from molten metal in their basement kitchen. After casting the mirrors, William Herschel would have to polish them nonstop for hours on end, to keep the metal from misting over before they were placed inside the telescope. Holmes says that during one epic 16-hour polishing session, young Caroline "put food in his mouth to keep him going and read from The Arabian Nights."
It's that kind of ingenuity that characterized the Romantic age of science.
Another character in the book, Humphry Davy, invented the miners' lamp and measured the cubic capacity of his own lungs. He also experimented with gasses — including carbon monoxide and laughing gas — on himself. This father of modern chemistry was catapulted to fame in England, Holmes says; Lord Byron even mentioned Davy and his lifesaving lantern in his satiric poem "Don Juan." But Holmes says that Davy formed a direct friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge when the poet volunteered to take part in the chemist's experiments.
"You need to imagine this extraordinary moment when the great Romantic poet, fresh from his opium experiments, fresh from writing the poem 'Kubla Khan,' goes into [Davy's] laboratory at Bristol and breathes his experimental gasses, and then gives his description of what physical and psychological effect they have on him," Holmes says.
Davy's experiments with gasses were a precursor to the later discovery of anesthesia.
In his book, Holmes chronicles the adventures of early balloonists and the explorer Mungo Park in Africa. He also explores the effects of the scientific climate on Mary Shelley's cult novel Frankenstein. In the end, he makes clear that one thing the scientists and artists of the Romantic era shared was a need to both live and describe their "age of wonder."