I didn’t quite know what to expect having picked this book up in the States last year. I think I assumed it would be something on the lines of a Victorian version of Hustle or the fascinating novel Dizzy City by my old friend Nicholas Griffin (who is certainly NOT to be confused with his odious BNP namesake). You know, a fun, historical romp through true stories of New York hucksters and con-artists.
But it wasn’t quite that at all. In fact, the more I read of this enjoyable, well-written but sometimes awkwardly structured, book, the more I realised it had serious intent. In fact it was sad but unfortunately recognisable in its portrayal of Christianity.
For the focus is of a series of anonymously written articles in the pioneering penny-newspapers of 1835. This became known as The Great Moon Hoax. In time, it became clear that they were the work of English émigré, Richard Adams Locke. But they gripped the whole of New York and were later serialised in many other cities’ papers. He described in great detail the apparent findings of the famous astronomer English Sir John Herschel from his Cape Town Observatory: an entire civilisation of flying man bats and other fantastical creatures living on the moon. People discussed at great length whether or not it could possibly be true. The city was divided.
One thing that few people realised, however, even after Locke came clean, was that he was not seeking to create a hoax – but to write a satire. He was satirising the extraordinary lengths to which some theologians would go in an effort to bend and influence scientific discoveries to their worldview.
So The Sun and The Moon is, in fact, a book about widespread reactions against the Christian gospel and contains a cast of many names well known to those familiar with the period: Edgar Allan Poe, P T Barnum, the Herschel family, even the father of James Gordon Bennett (whom I’d previously only encountered as a mild expletive!). Integrating science and theology is of course a noble and even essential enterprise. But the lengths to which people would go does no credit to either science or theology. Here is one example that especially got under Locke’s skin, taken from a book called Celestial Scenery.
In his letter Locke addressed only a single point from Celestial Scenery, which he believed would be sufficient to illustrate “the serious trespasses of Dr Dick’s theological school of philosophy upon the paramount jurisdiction of physical science”. Thomas Dick had long insisted – the face of substantial evidence to the contrary – that there could be no volcanoes on the moon. Volcanoes, like earthquakes and hurricanes, were evidence of God’s displeasure, and God could be displeased only with sinners; because the lunarians existed in a state of innocence, their landscape would not be blemished with such agents of physical destruction. “Is not this pretty stuff to pass for philosophy,” asked Locke, “and to be presented to our youth as a rule of judgement in determining questions of fact?”
The real world of nature, he pointed out, contains an astonishing multiplicity of functions, and it was the height of arrogance – not to mention pitiable scientific reasoning – to reserve to oneself the right to define certain of them, arbitrarily, as the products of ‘goodness’ or ‘sin’.
The fang of the viper, the claws of the tiger, the tail of the spider, the sing of the wasp, and the beak and talons of the eagle, are as ‘very good’ for their respective purposes, as the milky foundations of the mammalia, or the curious chrysalis of the butterfly… (Moon & Sun, p278)
Unfortunately, by such extreme lengths, the cause of apologetic integration was severely discredited. It demonstrates the need to be very careful about what reductionist assumptions we bring to bear on the discussions. For is it really the case that volcanoes can only be understood as a sign of judgement? Or that lunarians are necessarily innocent? Etc etc etc.
Another of the subplots of the book, sadly, is the inconsistencies of Christians during the Second Great Awakening. Barnum was a fascinating figure, the inventor of the ‘humbug’ which he saw not as a con, but as an entertainment.
As P T Barnum explained in his book on the subject, a humbug “consists in putting on glittering appearances – outside show – novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear.’ Superficially, at least, Barnum’s humbug is similar to Edgar Allen Poe’s diddle, as each is a form of hoax. The diddle, however, is carefully designed to preclude any awareness that it has taken place: the grocery story owner does not realize he has been tricked out of his whiskey, or the camp-meeting attendee out of his bridge toll. A humbug, on the other hand, noisily calls attention to itself; it also allows for the possibility of doubt, and requires consent from those who participate in it. The humbug might well turn out to be authentic (many of Barnum’s attractions were just what they were advertised as being), but whether it is true or false, the customers must depart believing they have gotten their money’s worth. A promoter who fails to provide his customers what Barnum called a “full equivalent for their money” will be denounced as a swindler and a fraud, while one who delivers a proper humbug will find his customers coming again and again – the first time because they believe his attraction is authentic, the second time because they are not sure, and the third time to figure out how the trick has been pulled off. The entertainment lies in the nature of the attraction (although as Barnum pointed out, a certain amount of ‘glitter’ is essential) than in the implicit competition between patron and promoter, each one seeking to outwit the other in a game of deception. (p263)
But one of his key influences was the small-town Christianity of his childhood, one which he resolutely rejected in adulthood. And he had many of his ideas from the cons pulled off by Christians – in contrast to whom, he liked to think, he had seized the moral high ground. This is a simple illustration of this:
Barnum loved to tell the story of a grocer who doubled as the deacon at the town’s church. One morning, before breakfast, he called down to his clerk:
“John, have you watered the rum?”
“And sanded the sugar?”
“And dusted the pepper?”
“And chicoried the coffee?”
“Then come up to prayers.” (p103)
I enjoyed the book as it brought to life the streets of early Victorian New York in a remarkable way. But I was also challenged afresh: for the acute need for both rigour in our apologetic and integrity in our living. And there, but for the grace, go I…
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.
Mungo Park was an unusual figure who was sponsored by Joseph Banks and the Royal Society to explore the unknown parts of central Africa – a scottish doctor, a Christian believer, a driven explorer. Above all, Banks clearly saw in Park a reflection of his younger self in his now long-past exploration of Tahiti.
But I was very struck by this description of how he had his assumptions completely overturned after ending up in dire circumstances.
At dusk Park was greeted by a Negro woman who had been labouring in the fields near the river. She invited him back to her hut, lit a lamp, spread a mat and made him supper of fish baked over a charcoal fire. Evidently Park half-expected some kind of sexual overture. But instead the woman invited into the hut various female members of her family, and they all quietly sat round him in the firelight, spinning cotton and singing him to sleep. Park suddenly realised the song was extempore, and the subject was himself. He was amazed when he began to understand the words: ‘It was sung by one of the young women, the rest joining in a sort of chorus. The air was sweet and plaintive, and the words literally translated, were these: – ‘The winds roared, and the rain fell. The poor white man, faint and weary, came and sat under our tree. He has no mother to bring him milk; no wife to grind his corn. Chorus: Let us pity the poor white man, no mother has he…’
The women reversed all Park’s assumptions about his travels in Africa. He realised that it was he – the heroic white man – who was in reality the lonely, ignorant, pitiable, motherless and unloved outcast. It was he who came and sat under their tree, and drank at their river. He found it hard to sleep that night, and in the morning he gave the woman four brass buttons from his coat before he left, a genuinely precious gift. (p217)
It brilliantly illustrates why, despite its challenges and unexpected outcomes, we should relish the opportunity to relate cross-culturally.
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)