Well, the book’s first draft is done and sent off – the initial editors’ comments are awaited with trepidation. But the good news (I hear you ALL cry) is that I can get back to some serious blogging. And what better way to mark this momentous event than by offering some Friday Fun.
One of my recent excitements is the quirky Cox’s Fragmenta. This is edited by Simon Murphy from a really bizarre tome in the British Library – essentially a scrap-book of news clippings kept by one Francis Cox (1752-1834) on every subject under the sun. In fact, it takes up 20 feet of shelving. So I thought it might be fun to pick out a few choice morsels.
Nearly 10 years ago, a dear friend of mine was addressing a gathering of Ugandan MPs in the Parliament building in Kampala (around the 40th anniversary of independence). It included those from all shades on the political spectrum, including not a few post-colonial firebrands. My friend is certainly no great apologist for imperialism, but he posed two simple questions.
- “Which Ugandan regions (of those that the British failed to develop) have we since developed?”
- “What aspects of public life, government and rule of law have we improved on or done better in than the colonial regime?”
It is rather a tired Christmas cliché for preachers to go on about how we need to get beyond the tinsel and trimmings to the heart of Christmas – but one that sadly needs repeating. And while I love what Christmas is all about it, perhaps even more now than ever, it is interesting how different aspects strike home amidst all the familiarity and form. There’s no predicting what it’s going to be, if anything. But this year, I’ve been struck by how often the tradition pierces through the vacuous, trite and superficially jolly to engage with even the deepest hurts and doubts. Read more
Well, the US presidential election is in its final month at last. Will any of us sleep safely in our beds again?
History has been full of people who have hedged their bets and emulated the venerable Vicar of Bray. And in smaller ways, politicians are doing it all the time. Saying things that don’t actually say too many things in case they be accused of actually saying things they don’t want to be heard actually to be saying. Read more
With both children away on camp, Rachel & I ventured out on rather a road trip from Wiltshire along the South Downs and up. Marvellous.
At the start of the week, we had a chance to visit the original Arcadia of Sir Philip Sidney’s imagination (see right for poet pic) – Wilton House near Salisbury, home of the Earls of Pembroke. Read more
Having come up with a couple of other similar lists for Lars Dahle’s online culture project (20 Questions for Novels & 12 Questions for Albums), here is the latest, on one of my personal passions: history writing. Popular history books are big business. Which means that lots of people must be reading them… Which means they are definitely worth approaching with considerably more care and attention than many give them…
It was slightly surreal – an invitation to a mere blogger, who occasionally and with the reckless confidence that comes only from profound ignorance, dabbles in the realm of science. I guess it was because of past raves about books like The Age of Wonder and God’s Philosophers that someone somewhere had the random idea of inviting me to the press opening of the Science Museum’s new James Watt Exhibition this morning. So I duly pitched up, enjoyed my complimentary coffee and croissant and circulated with the best of them. I listened with interest as the museum boss and then celeb-historian Adam Hart-Davis gave us their three-penny’orth. And then wandered around the new displays – just off to the left of the main Energy Hall on the ground floor – a full 24 hours before it opens to the public tomorrow.
And in the brief time that I could be there, it was great. So I guess if someone goes as the result of this little post, their punt was worth it. The centrepiece is the installation of Watt’s home workshop exactly as he left it when he died in 1819. The Science Museum had gained it, lock stock and barrel, in 1924 – and now it is cleverly set up so that one can walk into it and glimpse the place where this great engineering mind spent his days in retirement. It’s full of bric-a-brac gathered from a life of relentless enquiry and experiment – what Hart-Davis amusingly described as junk – and what fascinating junk it is (it includes the first ever circular saw apparently). The advantage of being a press opening is that we could go behind the glass and look around the exhibit (under watchful eyes of course). Check out one or two snaps I took. Read more
I read this book very quickly, while away on half term last week. It is a brilliantly researched and well-written account of a world-changing tragedy – and there is no small, grim irony that this is the week in which the Porguguese island of Madeira has suffered more natural disaster.
That Lisbon 1755 was a terrible moment (earthquake followed by rampant fires followed by tsunami) is not in doubt and simply as a human story, it is entirely deserving of study. Indeed, it was such a huge event that the impact was felt 100s of miles away, and the sea was affected on the other side of the Atlantic (in the Caribbean). It thus qualified as one of only two ‘teletsunami‘ (a tsunami that has travelled over 1000km) ever recorded in the Caribbean.
But its wider importance cannot be underestimated either, because of the philosophical and moral repercussions it had on European thought. As Paice describes Voltaire’s brilliant deconstruction of prevailing ideas:
In Voltaire’s deft hands the Lisbon earthquake became the vehicle for an assault on optimism and the orthodox view of divine Providence which would change the way people thought for ever; and it in turn it arguably became the last disaster in which God held centre stage. (p195)
The reasons are many – but if a city could ever have claimed to have been ‘Christian’ Lisbon was one that would have tried (although many Protestants at the time including the likes of Wesley and Whitefield would have disputed it). It’s Catholicism was very strong – perhaps 1/6th of the population were so called ‘religioso‘ – but its forms were (even by many european Catholics’ admissions) rampantly corrupt and hypocritical. Worse, though, was that the first big quake struck at 10am on Saturday 1st November 1755 – which was at precisely the moment that many of Lisbon’s citizens would have been in church. For 1st November is also All Saints’ Day, and this was a huge feast day in the life of the city. Was this God’s judgment on their sham piety? Or some grim divine error? Or did it in fact have anything to do with God at all?
Paice has gathered an impressive range of sources, mainly from visiting English traders or resident English merchants, or from aristocrats passing through on their European Grand Tours. These bring the event home, steering us clear of the history of hollow statistics. He manages regularly to find the ‘mot juste‘ from one source or another, and thus creates what is a very readable account. This is no small feat in itself.
Another, very positive feature is the introductory section (pp1-64 – entitled A Gilt-Edged Empire). This is excellent in setting up the drama of the tragedy – it puts into perspective so much of why people could reach such harsh and grim conclusions about Lisbon’s suffering, as well as why it took so long to recover.
My only criticisms are slight (and they are slight, because i was thoroughly gripped by the book):
- the impact on European philosophy and thinking is not greatly developed (although the short chapters that engage with Voltaire and his Poeme & [[ASIN:0140455108 Candide]] are clear and helpful). The philosophical aftershocks of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake are still felt today, long after the physical event has disappeared from memory. It was fascinating (in a chilling kind of way) to hear echoes in the book of some remarks made about the 2010 Haiti earthquake – their seeds had sown in the response to Lisbon. Of course, this book was written in 2008, but the modern resonances in the aftermath to the Indian Ocean tsunami, for example, could have been drawn in more. The book’s title is certainly accurate because earthquakes were clearly seen as caused directly by God’s judgment. But it would be interesting to see further how this interpretation has been relentlessly and deliberately challenged since, not least by Voltaire’s heirs.
- Maps! There is a simple map at the start of the book – but because this book is so focused on a whole city and its environs (one I’ve never visited), it would have been greatly improved by better maps so that the relentless accounts of the disasters spreading through the town could be more easily followed. As someone who does not speak Portuguese and who does not know the city, I was confused on several occasions (but my hunch is that better maps would have helped). To my mind, history books can never have enough maps!
However, despite these minor gripes, this is an excellent book. Fascinating, informative and provocative. As it was one of those events that made us what we are in contemporary, secularised Europe, this is a book that deserves a wide readership. How we handle these challenges, which were so well formulated by the likes of Voltaire, continues to this day for those wanting to uphold an orthodox understanding of divine providence. But it has arguably got harder – for not only have natural disasters ratcheted up in their horror, so too has the depth and extent of man’s inhumanity to man (e.g. the Holocaust).
Yet more from Holmes’ Age of Wonder. This time the focus is the new-found fascination with flight, as provided by hot air balloons. For the first time human beings could escape the shackles of gravity and deliberately ‘fly’ – albeit in a rather clumsy and highly dangerous way. What struck me was the contrasting reactions from those who gawped from the fields below.
On the one hand, balloons provoked a wild sense of possibility, with all the enlightenment fervour and ambition that entailed. Here’s the poet Shelley again, dreaming of abolition:
Perhaps Shelley put it best, when he was a young undergraduate at Oxford in 1811, and had just witnessed another of Sadler’s balloon ascents one sparkling summer morning from Christchurch Meadows:
The balloon has not yet received the perfection of which it is surely capable; the art of navigating the air is in its first and most helpless infancy; the aerial mariner still swims on bladders, and has not yet mounted the rude raft… It would seem a mere toy, a feather, in comparison with the splendid anticipations of the philosophical chemist. Yet it ought not to be altogether condemned. It promises prodigious faculties for locomotion, and will allow us to traverse vast tracts with ease and rapidity, and to explore unknown countries without difficulty. Why are we so ignorant of the interior of Africa? – Why do we not despatch intrepid aeronauts to cross it in every direction, and to survey the whole peninsula in a few weeks? The shadow of the first balloon, which a vertical sun would project precisely underneath it, as it glided over that hitherto unhappy country, would virtually emancipate every slave, and would annihilate every slave forever. (p162)
And yet, as at every great technological advance, there is the dread of the malicious ends to which it might be used.
Surprisingly, balloons did not appeal to the gothic novelist Horace Walpole, though perhaps at sixty-six he was a little old for such perilous novelties. He thought balloons might be sinister [as he wrote in a letter of 1783]:
Well! I hope these new mechanic meteors will prove only playthings for the learned and idle, and not be converted into new engines of destruction to the human race – as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in Science. The wicked wit of man always studies to apply the results of talents to enslaving, destroying or cheating his fellow creatures. Could we reach the moon, we should think of reducing it to a province of some European kingdom.
It was an ominous prophecy. (p135)
As ever, the rough with the smooth – and our forebears were all too aware of both… It is no surprise therefore that Holmes gave his book the subtitle: How the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science.
William Cowper is a hero of mine (and one on whom I’ve posted briefly before) – a Christian believer who persevered despite being plagued by the most appalling depression and mental afflictions. Through it all, he was able to compose some of the most piercing, faith-inspired poetry ever written.
So it was nice to see him make an appearance in this Holmes’ book, though.
Cook’s sober book (A Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World in 1777) caught the public’s imagination. The poet William Cowper, tucked away in his Buckinghamshire vicarage at Olney, and permanently trembling on the bring of disabling depression, found extraordinary relief and delight in imagining the great voyage southwards. To explain his sensations, Cowper invented the idea of the ‘armchair traveller’: ‘My imagination is so captivated upon these occasions, that I seem to partake with the navigators, in all the dangers they encountered. I lose my anchor; my main-sail is rent into shreds; I kill a shark, and by signs converse with a Patagonian, and all this without moving from my fireside.’
He travels and expatiates, as the bee
From flower to flower, so he from land to land;
The manners, customs, policy of all
Pay contribution to the store he gleans;
He sucks intelligence in every clime,
And spreads the honey of his deep research
At his return — a rich repast for me.
He travels, and I too. I tread his deck,
Ascend his topmast, through his peering eyes
Discover countries, with a kindred heart
Suffer his woes, and share in his escapes;
While fancy, like the finger of a clock,
Runs the great circuit, and is still at home.
from Age of Wonder (p51)
I simply love Cowper’s coining of the ‘armchair traveller’ (long before the concept was modified (and debased!) for sports broadcasting); it’s made all the more poignant by the realisation that he was so debilitated by his mental afflictions that he could never have travelled even if he’d wanted to.
Doesn’t the phrase just capture the joy of reading perfectly, though…?
As mentioned in the previous post, one of the book’s threads is Sir (as he would become) Joseph Banks – and his account of what he encountered as a self-funded scientific researcher during a Royal Navy expedition to the South Seas under Captain Cook. The focus of his work was the time they spent on Tahiti (or Otaheite, as they originally called it). He laid the foundations of what would become a formal discipline: cultural anthropology. He certainly took participating in local customs very seriously (!) and as a result scandalised some back home with his accounts. But that aside, I loved this wonderful moment in the Holmes’ account:
(in 1769) Rounding the tip of the bay, they looked out to sea and saw something wholly unexpected and ‘truly surprising’. This was the astonishing and never-to-be-forgotten sight, far out on the unprotected edge of the lagoon, of a group of dark Tahitian heads bobbing amidst the enormous dark-blue Pacific waves. At first Banks thought they had been flung out of their canoes and were drowning. Then he realised that the Tahitians were surfing.
No European had ever witnessed – or at least recorded – this strange, extreme and quintessentially South Seas sport before. (p24)
This was what he wrote in his journal (HT surf-research):
… as the shore was coverd with pebbles and large stones. In the midst of these breakers 10 or 12 Indians were swimming who whenever a surf broke near them divd under it with infinite ease, rising up on the other side; but their chief amusement was carried on by the stern of an old canoe, with this before them they swam outas far as the outermost breach, then one or two would get into it and opposing the blunt end to the breaking wave were hurried in with incredible swiftness
Sometimes they were carried almost ashore but generaly the wave broke over them before they were half way, in which case the[y] divd and quickly rose on the other side with the canoe in their hands, which was towd/(swam) out again and the same method repeated
We stood admiring this very wonderfull scene for full half an hour, in which time no one of the actors atempted to come ashore but all seemd most highly entertaind with their strange diversion.
Richard Holmes’ magisterial Age of Wonder has worked its magic on me. Having worked my way through it over several weeks before Christmas, many of its scenes and images have jostled unforgettably in my mind. This is not simply the account of a great period in the Royal Society’s history (although it is that); nor is it a cultural history of the Georgian era in Britain (although that would have been completely fine by me, since that’s easily one of my favourite periods).
It is instead a window into the relationship between the sciences, the arts and the popular imagination at a very important moment for the culture of the modern world. Combined with Holmes’ easy and fluent writing style and gentle humour, this makes it constantly compelling, regularly provocative and always insightful. I simply couldn’t put it down, eagerly anticipating the next ‘aha’ moment! One myth that Holmes seeks to dispel (and does so expertly) is the common notion that the Romantic era was anti-science. Of course it was more complex than that. Holmes is a renowned biographer of the Romantic poets and so clearly qualified constantly to weave his tale of scientific endeavour in and out of their’s.
Giants of the Royal Society
The book opens in 1769 with a very young Joseph Banks intrepidly setting his sights on Tahiti (and thus pioneering the world of cultural anthropology), and ends in the 1830s with the next generation of scientists like Faraday and Babbage.
Various names from the British scientific pantheon take turns in Holmes’ spotlight (like the William Herschel and his equally gifted sister Caroline, Mungo Park, Sir Humphry Davy), and we see what drove them and inspired their science, as well as their impact on the likes of Coleridge, Percy & Mary Shelley (there’s a brilliant chapter on her pioneering novel Frankenstein), Keats and Byron etc. But if there is one constant thread, it is the guidance and patronage of Banks, in his capacity as President of the Royal Society.
There are so many things one could pick out from the book as it is so densely wide-ranging. But while I learned a lot about so many things of which I was previously woefully ignorant, I was especially keen to understand more of the worldview questions, and especially the theological debates which anticipated those of the Darwinian era only a few years later. (In fact, the narrative closes around the time Darwin was setting off on his fateful voyage to the Galapagos). And therefore this story is of huge importance. As Holmes says on the very penultimate page:
It seems to me impossible to understand fully the contemporary debates about the environment, or climate change, or genetic engineering, or alternative medicine, or extraterrestrial life, or the nature of consciousness, or even the existence of God, without knowing how these arose from the hopes and anxieties of the Romantic generation. (p468)
That’s absolutely right – and this book is a brilliant way to do all of that.
The Challenge from the Heavens
Astronomy, more than those later protagonists of botany and biology, was producing the biggest challenge to old theistic ways of thinking – especially after the discoveries and thoughts of the extraordinary William Herschel with his revolutionary 40ft telescope at Slough. This was profoundly affecting people’s sense of place in the universe – the cosmos had always been a place of awe and wonder, but now it was far bigger and far older than anyone had before imagined.
So notice the shift from Coleridge’s more neutral description of star-gazing with his father to that of Shelley’s polemical take:
At all events, Coleridge treasured the memory of (The Reverend John Coleridge) his father’s eager demonstration of the stars and planets overhead, and the possibility of other worlds: ‘I remember that at eight years old I walked with him one evening from a farmer’s house, a mile from Ottery – & he told me the names of the stars – and how Jupiter was a thousand times larger than our world – and that the other twinkling stars were Suns that had worlds rolling round them – & when I came home, he showed me how they rolled round. I heard him with profound delight and admiration; but without the least mixture of Wonder or incredulity. For from my early reading of Faery Tales, & Genii etc etc – my mind had been habituated to the Vast.’ (pp111-2)
I just love that final phrase: habituated to the Vast. Wonderful.
Shelley used Herschel’s vision of an open-ended solar system, and an unimaginably expanded universe, to attack religious belief. His arguments went as follows. The cosmos as revealed by science must contain many thousands of different nebular systems, and therefore millions of habitable planets, so it was impossible to sustain a narrow, religious concept of one Almighty Christian Redeemer. Since there would be so many other ‘fallen’ worlds to redeem, the idea of God being born and crucified on each planet became absurd. As Shelley put it provokingly, ‘His Works have borne witness against Him.’ He wrote a particularly fierce note ‘On the Plurality of Worlds’ in Queen Mab:
The indefinite immensity of the universe, is the most aweful subject of contemplation… It is impossible to believe that the Spirit that pervades this infinite machine begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman… The works of His fingers have borne witness against him… Sirius is supposed to be 54 trillion miles from the Earth… Millions and millions of suns are ranged around us, all attended by innumerable worlds, yet calm, regular, and harmonious, all keeping the paths of immutable Necessity. (p391)
But not everyone shared that view – or saw the direct threats that science would pose to religious belief in the years to come:
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. It was the faith that brought Mungo Park back alive from his first Niger expedition. It was the faith that inspired Michael Faraday to become a Deacon in the Sandemanian Church in July 1832. (p450)
Which is much more nuanced than the vitriol of the anti-religion brigade, let alone the anti-science religious types, would have us believe. They simply ARE compatible – which his why so many cosmologists and ‘hard’ scientists are perfectly comfortable with their theism.
The Wonder of Science
But in many ways, the background to the apologetic debates that we get ourselves tied up is was not the book’s most valuable contribution (helpful thought it undoubtedly is). What most gripped me was the fact that I found myself again and again swept up in the sheer romance of science – the sense of awe at both the cosmic and microscopic, the desire to know, to understand God’s thoughts after him, if you like. I found myself frequently transported to the Oxford’s Christ Church meadow where spectators watching in astonishment at the first balloon flights, or to Herschel’s observatory, or to the audience of Faraday’s Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution.
My appreciation was only deepened, not diminished, when the romantic myths of the noble scientist get dispelled. I was very struck by this point, sadly tucked away in a footnote:
Michael Hoskin has suggested in his essay ‘On Writing the History of Modern Astronomy’ (1980) that most histories of science continue to be ‘uninterrupted chronicles’, which run along ‘handing out medals to those who “got it right”’. They ignore the history of error, so central to the scientific process, and fail to illuminate science as a ‘creative human activity’ which involves the whole personality and has a broad social context – Journal for the History of Astronomy 11 (1980). To this one might add that Romanticism introduced three important themes into science biography.
- First the ‘Newton syndrome’, the notion of ‘scientific genius’, in which science is largely advanced by a small number of preternaturally gifted (and usually isolated) individuals.
- Second, the existence of the ‘Eureka moment’, in which great discoveries are made without warning (or much preparation) in a sudden, blazing instant of revelation and synthesis.
- Third, the ‘Frankenstein nightmare’, in which all scientific progress is really a disguised form of destruction. (p94)
Now, there were one or two moments where I did feel that Holmes’ objectivity temporarily deserted him, mainly in his depictions of theistic or Christian worldviews. Too often, Christian morality or theology was implicitly charged as unhelpful or even destructive (e.g. in the interactions between later Christian visitors to Tahiti), or individuals would be described as ‘fundamentalist’, as the painter Benjamin Haydon is on p319 (which was both jarring and anachronistic). But on the whole, I can forgive these as lapses because the narrative is so sweeping in scope and brilliantly told, and they are few and far between.
I think I’ll stop there for now – there are loads of other gems, which i might post separately and without too much verbiage. But I couldn’t have agreed more with these, the very last words of the book – inarticulately before reading The Age of Wonder, and passionately since:
The old, rigid debates and boundaries – science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics – are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe. And that is how this book might possibly end. (p469)