Never-ending mysteries of science

Joseph wright of derby-793344

I’ve just discovered what promises to be a marvelous book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generations Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by the “Romantic biographer” Richard Holmes (2008).* The chemist Humphrey Davy, in an 1810 lecture, captured the spirit of his times thus: “Nothing is fatal to the progress of the human mind as to suppose our views of science are ultimate; that there are no mysteries in nature; that our triumphs are complete; and that there are no new worlds to conquer” (p. xiii). The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was by this time already engaged in the Romantic scientific enterprise: “I shall attack Chemistry, like a Shark,” he wrote in a letter in 1800 (ibid.).

I can hear some of my colleagues in science grinding their teeth. “Romantic” science? Ugh. (Even I grit my teeth over those value-laden words “progress” and “worlds to conquer” – so widely used and abused in the ongoing justification for space exploration….)

“Romanticism as a cultural force,” Holmes writes, “is generally regarded as intensely hostile to science, its ideal of subjectivity eternally opposed to that of scientific objectivity.” He offers a different perspective. “The notion of wonder seems to be something that once united” Romanticism and science – and perhaps it “can still do so.”*

What we commonly refer to as The Scientific Revolution, the late-seventeenth-century cultural movement, “promulgated an essentially private, elitist, specialist form of knowledge, Holmes says. “Its lingua franca was Latin, and its common currency mathematics. Romantic science, on the other hand, had a new commitment to explain, to educate, to communicate to a general public.”

I would not choose “romantic” to describe me or my worldview. I subscribe to the dictionary definition of “romantic” – that is, “fanciful; impractical; unrealistic.” Capitalize that R, however, and I’ll be happy to call myself a Romantic scientist!

 

* The illustration above – a lovely depiction of wonder – is a detail from a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), “A philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery.” The painting appears in the frontispiece of The Age of Wonder. (An orrery is an apparatus designed to represent the positions, motions, and phases of various bodies in the solar system.)

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