21 November 2010

"The Age of Wonder"

“To the natural philosopher there is no natural object unimportant or trifling… a soap bubble.. an apple… a pebble… He walks in the midst of wonders. (John Herschel, 1830)

This week I finished reading The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes (Pantheon Books, New York, 2008).  I borrowed it from the library based on a recommendation in The Atlantic, or Harpers, and initially thought I didn't have time to read it all, so I just read the chapters about Sir Joseph Banks because I have long been fascinated by the wonderful gardens at Kew, which I spent many weekends exploring during a summer sabbatical.

After reading about Banks, I jumped ahead to read about Humphrey Davy and his invention of the miners' lamp, then back toward the beginning to learn about the early hot air balloonists.  By then I decided 'what the heck' and finished the other chapters about the Herschels' discoveries in astronomy and Mungo Park's exploration of Africa, and stuff about Mary Shelley and Byron and Keats and Coleridge and Erasmus Darwin and Michael Faraday and Charles Babbage.  Here are some excerpts:
Joseph Montgolfier later said he had tried Lavoisier’s ‘gaz’ unsuccessfully, but discovered the principle of hot air by watching his wife’s chemise inflating when she hung it over the hearth to dry. (p. 128)

Already in a paper of 1802 Herschel considered the idea that “deep space” must also imply “deep time.” He wrote in his Preface: “A telescope with a power of penetrating into space like my 40 foot one, has also, as it may be called, a power of penetrating into time past…[from a remote nebula] the rays of light which convey its image to the eye, must have been more than 19 hundred and 10 thousand – that is – almost two million years on their way.” The universe was therefore almost unimaginably older than people had previously thought. This idea of deep time was one which required a great deal of explanation to the layman. (p. 203)

On 24 May 1812 the great Felling colliery mining disaster had shaken the population of Sunderland. Every miner in the coalpit, all ninety-two of them, was killed under horrific circumstances: some mutilated, some “scorched dry like mummies,” and some blown headless out of the mineshaft “like bird-shot.” (p. 351)

In Florence, while the guest of the Grand Duke, Davy performed an impressive carbon-based experiment which proved that the most apparently precious of objects – the diamond – could also be the product of nature’s simplest processes. With the Duke’s permission, he commandeered the huge solar magnifying lens at the Florentine Cabinet of Natural History, and subjected an uncut diamond to intense and continuous heat. The diamond eventually burst into flame, leaving a fine crust of black carbon… (p. 355)

For many Romantic scientists, with a robust intellectual belief in the “argument by Design,” there was no immediate contradiction between religion and science: rather the opposite. Science was a gift of God or Providence to mankind, and its purpose was to reveal the wonders of His design. This indeed was the essence of “natural” religion, as promoted for example by William Paley in his Natural Theology (1802), with its famous analogy with the divine watchmaker. (p. 450)
I even discovered that "replaced" is a contranym (or contronym, or anti-antonym, or whatever you want to call it), which can mean two different and opposite things depending on the context. In a discussion of Sir Joseph Banks was this sentence:
His election was, in the event, a triumph. Confirmed by acclaim, he was “unanimously replaced in the Chair.” (p. 395)
I would hope that these excerpts will let you decide whether the book would interest you.  I've incorporated some other material from the book into individual posts below.

1 comment:

  1. As to contranyms (words with two opposite meanings) -- the one that I always think of is "sanction." If you "sanction" something, it may mean you approve of it, or it may mean you disapprove of it.

    If someone is "sanctioned" it may mean they were reprimanded by some judicial body. But if an event is "sanctioned" by such and such a group, it was sponsored by it.


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