Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Kirsch, Adam. "What's Romantic about Science? When Science Became a Source of Sublime Terror." SLATE MAGAZINE July 20, 2009.
Holmes, Richard. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. New York: Pantheon, 2009. Richard Holmes explores an early-19th-century period of terrific—and often terrified—excitement about science, of marvelous discoveries that raised humble experimenters to the rank of national heroes. Holmes' subjects—including astronomer William Herschel, chemist Humphry Davy, and explorer Mungo Park—were household names in England, but their discoveries were by no means always welcome ones. Herschel's observation of the stars, for instance, showed that the Milky Way was just one of a vast number of galaxies that were constantly being born, aging, and dying. The Milky Way, Herschel warned, "cannot last forever." It followed, as Holmes writes, that "our solar system, our planet, and hence our whole civilization would have an ultimate and unavoidable end." For the first time, the apocalypse was not a matter of religious faith but of demonstrated scientific fact. Herschel's discoveries represent one face of what Holmes calls, loosely but suggestively, Romantic science. The phrase sounds like an oxymoron, as Holmes acknowledges: "Romanticism as a cultural force is generally regarded as intensely hostile to science, its ideal of subjectivity eternally opposed to that of scientific objectivity. But I do not believe this was always the case, or that the terms are so mutually exclusive. The notion of wonder seems to be something that once united them, and can still do so." Contemplating the immensity and strangeness of the universe could produce the same feeling of sublime terror that Coleridge strove for in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or that Wordsworth evokes in parts of his autobiographical epic The Prelude. In Keats' sonnet "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer," the poet compares his feeling of literary discovery with that of "some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken"; as Holmes explains, this was an allusion to Herschel's discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781, one of the stories told at length in The Age of Wonder. . . . Read the whole review here: http://www.slate.com/id/2222360/pagenum/all.