Monday, September 21, 2009

Islands of Wonder

Two superb new science books: The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom by Graham Farmelo, and The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes.

The first I am reviewing at the request of the Toronto Globe and Mail, so I will not comment until the review appears in the paper. It is one of the best scientific biographies I have read in a long time.

The second engages with a remarkable interval in the history of science between the abstract formalisms of Enlightenment science and the clear-eyed pragmatism of Victorian science. For one wonder-full generation poets and scientists took inspiration from each other, discovering in nature an inexhaustible treasure trove of marvels. We find in "Romantic science" a reaction against the cool, mathematical universe of Newton, a world of hard objects in forceful interaction, to be replaced (says Holmes) with a softer science "of invisible powers and mysterious energies, of fluidity and transformation, of growth and organic change."

Holmes' thesis is developed biographically: Joseph Banks, William Herschel, Mungo Park, Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday, Samuel Coleridge, William Blake, Wolfgang Goethe, Alexander Humboldt, Joseph Wright, and others. He writes of the Romantic generation: "The ideal of a pure 'disinterested' science, independent of political ideology and even religious doctrine...began to emerge." The emphasis, he says, was on a secular, humanist body of knowledge that would serve all mankind. With this new ideal went a commitment to explain, to educate, and to share scientific discoveries with the general public.

All of this, of course, is consistent with the themes explored in this blog, and I have traversed some of the same territory (as, for example, here and here. I am not so sanguine as to imagine that a new Romantic alliance is in the offing, no matter how earnestly desired by yours truly and those who visit here. Political ideology and religious doctrine are in the ascendancy. Science has drifted into aloof self-interest, on the one hand, and pragmatic servitude to technology , on the other. Few poets or artists are inspired by the universe revealed by science.

It would be lovely to enter a new Age of Wonder, and certainly the elements of wonder unfold on every side. We are bathed as never before in invisible powers and mysterious energies, of fluidity and transformation, of growth and organic change. Perhaps the best we can hope for is lots of little Islands of Wonder -- such as this porch aspires to be -- awash in a sea of dogma and incuriosity.