Saturday, May 10, 2014


For Christmas two years ago, some friends of mine gave me a book called The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. I read it over the last couple of weeks and felt pretty good about getting to it just seventeen months after my friends gave it to me. It isn’t just me, is it? Most people, I imagine, take a while to get around to reading a gift – maybe a long while, and maybe forever. But if you give a guy with a ten-year reading plan a book that he didn’t ask for and that isn’t on his list, you shouldn’t harbor any realistic hopes that he’ll ever tell you how much he enjoyed the thoughtful present. But the title on this one intrigued me, and my friends will get their well deserved second round of thanks very soon.

The book tells a history of science from around 1750 to just about 1820, mostly in England. Holmes calls this the period of Romantic science, a phrase I hadn’t heard before. The concept sounded familiar to me, though, from what I know about music history. The salient feature of Romantic science, according to Holmes, is the image of the genius working alone and experiencing inexplicable Eureka moments, like Mozart or Beethoven in the history more familiar to me. (The story of Newton’s apple found traction around this time.) The key figures in the book are Joseph Banks, who sailed to Tahiti with Captain Cook, catalogued flora and fauna, and practically invented the field of anthropology; William and Caroline Herschel, who spent many nights under the stars peering through hand-made telescopes and discovering comets, nebulae, and the planet Uranus; the Montgolfier brothers and other balloonists; and Humphrey Davy, a chemist who discovered carbon monoxide and its noxious effects the hard way.

The most interesting figure to me was William Herschel. I haven’t published scores of scientific papers or changed the way people think about the universe forever, but I do feel a kinship of mind with Herschel. For one thing, he was a musician and composer; I’m listening to his oboe concerto in E-flat as I write these words. But I feel a connection to Herschel in astronomy as well. At a period when the general scientific culture was embracing the need for objective observation, Herschel pointed out that observation isn’t straightforward and must be trained. He often told people that he had to learn to see the sky, and I’ve experienced that very thing in looking through a telescope. Over and over, details in a nebula’s shape or on a planet’s surface that were totally invisible to me the first time I observed an object have become easy to see with repeated viewings. I also share Herschel’s love of hopping from star to star to find a desired target rather than using numbers on a dial or – even worse – a computerized motor. Herschel even said that memorizing the shapes in the sky was like reading a musical score for him.

The Age of Wonder was wonderful indeed from beginning to end. Thanks, Mark and Jennifer, for the present from two years ago! Now, it’s back to the Plan and the 1001 Nights.

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