Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Shock of the New

Bliss it was in those days to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!


Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder is a tour de force of intellectual history and biography, offering a sweeping overview of the heroic age of English Science, spanning roughly the half century from 1769 until the 1820's (Adam Kirsch's Slate review is here). Its central figures were Joseph Banks, whose infamously decadent "discovery" of Tahiti with Captain Cook gave way to later horror as many of the ship's crew succumbed to disease; William Herschel, the amateur astronomer whose epic devotion to the telescope yielded not only the discovery of Uranus, the first new planet found since ancient times, but also mind-blowing new insights into the size and age of the universe; and Humphry Davy, the prodigious chemist who experimented with nitrous oxide and identified sodium and potassium (and found time to write poetry on the side).

While some Romantic poets, such as the anti-Newtonian Blake, placed themselves in opposition to scientific efforts, others were fascinated by the new insights into nature that the age of discovery produced. These were often achieved at great risk, of course, as in the case of Mungo Park, who presumably perished while tracing the Niger river in Africa. As Holmes writes:

Then there was the young explorer Joseph Ritchie, to whom Keats gave a copy of his newly published poem Endymion, with instructions to place it in his travel pack, read it on his journey, and then 'throw it into the heart of the Sahara Desert' as a gesture of high romance. Keats received a letter from Ritchie, dated from near Cairo in December 1818. 'Endymion has arrived thus far on his way to the Desart (sic), and when you are sitting over your Christmas fire will be jogging (in all probability) on a camel's back o'er those African Sands immeasurable.' After this there was silence. Joseph Ritchie never returned.

Arguably what linked Romantic poetry and science was an exuberant optimism in the capacity of humankind for knowledge and improvement of the world:

Here Coleridge was defending the intellectual discipline of science as a force for clarity and good. He then added one of his most inspired perceptions. He thought that science, as a human activity, 'being necessarily performed with the passion of Hope, it was poetical.' Science, like poetry, was not merely 'progressive.' It directed a particular kind of moral energy and imaginative longing into the future. It enshrined the implicit belief that mankind could achieve a better, happier world. This is what Davy believed too, and 'Hope' became one of his watchwords.

Or as Holmes puts it in the final paragraph of his book:

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.

I don't think it is mere pessimism to observe that science, for a long time now, has been more about anxiety and consternation than about hope and wonder. If anything, owing to overpopulation, climate change, and the perpetual risk of nuclear holocaust, there is the sense that we are living through a long a horrific hangover from an irresponsible heyday of science (or at least its willy-nilly applications). Science these days is about cleaning up our global mess, or about keeping up with the Chinese, or about buttressing our economy.

Can the Romantic spirit of science be recaptured? I wonder (so to speak). There are no new Tahitis to discover. The Romantic space program of forty years ago has yielded to the sobering realization that space is vast indeed, and humans will not personally visit much of it in the foreseeable future. Mars is a huge stretch. Jupiter? Saturn? They may as well be on the far side of the galaxy.

Biology and particularly neuroscience would seem to be the best candidates for Romantic sciences, but even in these fields, can hope be said to outweigh apprehension? For every promise of longevity and well-being there are matching bugbears of cloning, overpopulation (120-year-olds playing golf and draining Social Security), artificial intelligence, and the onset of the digital mindset. I suppose I'm biased, but perhaps psychology in its vast breadth--from the study of the neuron, to spirituality and ethics and their evolution--holds out the best hope of saving us from human, all-too-human science.

It would have been cool though to have been Humphry Davy, trying out laughing gas for the first time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Self-experimentation in the name of science is truly inspiring: the mavericks, the martyrs, the obsessional fools (until proven otherwise) - defiant marvels of perseverance in the face of a hostile herd of regressive unthinking. They singe their retinas so that we might see.