Biographies & Memoirs



In my first chemistry class, at the age of fourteen, I successfully precipitated a single crystal of mineral salts. This elementary experiment was done by heating a solution of copper sulphate (I think) over a Bunsen burner, and leaving it to cool overnight. The next morning there it lay at the bottom of my carefully labelled test tube: a single beautiful crystal, the size of a flattened Fox’s Glacier Mint, a miniature ziggurat with a faint blue opalescence, propped up against the inside of the glass (too big to lie flat), monumental and mysterious to my eyes. No one else’s test tube held anything but a few feeble grains. I was triumphant, my scientific future assured.

But it turned out that the chemistry master did not believe me. The crystal was too big to be true. He said (not at all unkindly) that I had obviously faked it, and slipped a piece of coloured glass into the test tube instead. It was quite a good joke. I implored him, ‘Oh, test it, sir; just test it!’ But he refused, and moved on to other matters. In that moment of helpless disappointment I think I first glimpsed exactly what real science should be. To add to it, years later I learned the motto of the Royal Society: Nullius in Verba-‘Nothing upon Another’s Word’. I have never forgotten this incident, and have often related it to scientific friends. They nod sympathetically, though they tend to add that I did not (as a matter of chemical fact) precipitate a crystal at all-what I did was to seed one, a rather different process. No doubt this is so. But the eventual consequence, after many years of cooling, has certainly been to precipitate this book.


The Age of Wonder is a relay race of scientific stories, and they link together to explore a larger historical narrative. This is my account of the second scientific revolution, which swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, and produced a new vision which has rightly been called Romantic science.1

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. In effect there is Romantic science in the same sense that there is Romantic poetry, and often for the same enduring reasons.

The first scientific revolution, of the seventeenth century, is familiarly associated with the names of Newton, Hooke, Locke and Descartes, and the almost simultaneous foundations of the Royal Society in London and the Académie des Sciences in Paris. Its existence has long been accepted, and the biographies of its leading figures are well known. But this second revolution was something different. The first person who referred to a ‘second scientific revolution’ was probably the poet Coleridge in his Philosophical Lectures of 1819.2 It was inspired primarily by a sudden series of breakthroughs in the fields of astronomy and chemistry. It was a movement that grew out of eighteenth-century Enlightenment rationalism, but largely transformed it, by bringing a new imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work. It was driven by a common ideal of intense, even reckless, personal commitment to discovery.

It was also a movement of transition. It flourished for a relatively brief time, perhaps two generations, but produced long-lasting consequences-raising hopes and questions-that are still with us today. Romantic science can be dated roughly, and certainly symbolically, between two celebrated voyages of exploration. These were Captain James Cook’s first round-the-world expedition aboard the Endeavour, begun in 1768, and Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos islands aboard the Beagle, begun in 1831. This is the time I have called the Age of Wonder, and with any luck we have not yet quite outgrown it.

The idea of the exploratory voyage, often lonely and perilous, is in one form or another a central and defining metaphor of Romantic science. That is how William Wordsworth brilliantly transformed the great Enlightenment image of Sir Isaac Newton into a Romantic one. While a university student in the 1780s Wordsworth had often contemplated the full-size marble statue of Newton, with his severely close-cropped hair, that still dominates the stone-flagged entrance hall to the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge. As Wordsworth originally put it, he could see, a few yards from his bedroom window, over the brick wall of St John’s College,

The Antechapel, where the Statue stood

Of Newton, with his Prism and silent Face.

Sometime after 1805, Wordsworth animated this static figure, so monumentally fixed in his assured religious setting. Newton became a haunted and restless Romantic traveller amidst the stars:

And from my pillow, looking forth by light

Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold

The Antechapel where the Statue stood

Of Newton, with his prism and his silent face,

The marble index of a Mind for ever

Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.3

Around such a vision Romantic science created, or crystallised, several other crucial conceptions-or misconceptions-which are still with us. First, the dazzling idea of the solitary scientific ‘genius’, thirsting and reckless for knowledge, for its own sake and perhaps at any cost. This neo-Faustian idea, celebrated by many of the imaginative writers of the period, including Goethe and Mary Shelley, is certainly one of the great, ambiguous creations of Romantic science which we have all inherited. Closely connected with this is the idea of the ‘Eureka moment’, the intuitive inspired instant of invention or discovery, for which no amount of preparation or preliminary analysis can really prepare. Originally the cry of the Greek philosopher Archimedes, this became the ‘fire from heaven’ of Romanticism, the other true mark of scientific genius, which also allied it very closely to poetic inspiration and creativity. Romantic science would seek to identify such moments of singular, almost mystical vision in its own history. One of its first and most influential examples was to become the story of the solitary, brooding Newton in his orchard, seeing an apple fall and ‘suddenly’ having his vision of universal gravitation. This story was never told by Newton at the time, but only began to emerge in the mid-eighteenth century, in a series of memoirs and reminiscences.

The notion of an infinite, mysterious Nature, waiting to be discovered or seduced into revealing all her secrets, was widely held. Scientific instruments played an increasingly important role in this process of revelation, allowing man not merely to extend his senses passively-using the telescope, the microscope, the barometer-but to intervene actively, using the voltaic battery, the electrical generator, the scalpel or the air pump. Even the Montgolfier balloon could be seen as an instrument of discovery, or indeed of seduction.

There was, too, a subtle reaction against the idea of a purely mechanistic universe, the mathematical world of Newtonian physics, the hard material world of objects and impacts. These doubts, expressed especially in Germany, favoured a softer ‘dynamic’ science of invisible powers and mysterious energies, of fluidity and transformations, of growth and organic change. This is one of the reasons that the study of electricity (and chemistry in general) became the signature science of the period; though astronomy itself, once the exemplary science of the Enlightenment, would also be changed by Romantic cosmology.

The ideal of a pure, ‘disinterested’ science, independent of political ideology and even religious doctrine, also began slowly to emerge. The emphasis on a secular, humanist (even atheist) body of knowledge, dedicated to the ‘benefit of all mankind’, was particularly strong in Revolutionary France. This would soon involve Romantic science in new kinds of controversy: for instance, whether it could be an instrument of the state, in the case of inventing weapons of war. Or a handmaiden of the Church, supporting the widely held view of ‘Natural theology’, in which science reveals evidence of a divine Creation or intelligent design.

With these went the new notion of a popular science, a people’s science. The scientific revolution of the late seventeenth century had promulgated an essentially private, elitist, specialist form of knowledge. Its lingua franca was Latin, and its common currency mathematics. Its audience was a small (if international) circle of scholars and savants. Romantic science, on the other hand, had a new commitment to explain, to educate, to communicate to a general public.

This became the first great age of the public scientific lecture, the laboratory demonstration and the introductory textbook, often written by women. It was the age when science began to be taught to children, and the ‘experimental method’ became the basis of a new, secular philosophy of life, in which the infinite wonders of Creation (whether divine or not) were increasingly valued for their own sake. It was a science that, for the first time, generated sustained public debates, such as the great Regency controversy over ‘Vitalism’: whether there was such a thing as a life force or principle, or whether men and women (or animals) had souls.

Finally, it was the age which challenged the elite monopoly of the Royal Society, and saw the foundation of scores of new scientific institutions, mechanics institutes and ‘philosophical’ societies, most notably the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street in 1799, the Geological Society in 1807, the Astronomical Society in 1820, and the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831.

Much of this transition from Enlightenment to Romantic science is expressed in the paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby. Closely attached to the Lunar Society, and the friend of Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley, Wright became a dramatic painter of experimental and laboratory scenes which reinterpreted late-eighteenth-century Enlightenment science as a series of mysterious, romantic moments of revelation and vision. The calm, glowing light of reason is surrounded by the intense, psychological chiaroscuro associated with Georges de la Tour. This is most evident in the famous series of scientific demonstration scenes painted at the height of his career: The Orrery (1766, Derby City Museum and the frontispiece of this book), The Air Pump (1767, National Gallery, London) and The Alchemist (1768, Derby City Museum). But these memorable paintings also ask whether Romantic science contained terror as well as wonder: if discovery and invention brought new dread as well as new hope into the world. We have certainly inherited this dilemma.


The Age of Wonder aims to raise and reflect upon such questions. Yet in the end the book remains a narrative, a piece of biographical storytelling. It tries to capture something of the inner life of science, its impact on the heart as well as on the mind. In the broadest sense it aims to present scientific passion, so much of which is summed up in that childlike, but infinitely complex word, wonder. Plato argued that the notion of ‘wonder’ was central to all philosophical thought: ‘In Wonder all Philosophy began: in Wonder it ends…But the first Wonder is the Offspring of Ignorance; the last is the Parent of Adoration.’4

Wonder, in other words, goes through various stages, evolving both with age and with knowledge, but retaining an irreducible fire and spontaneity. This seems to be the implication of Wordsworth’s famous lyric of 1802, which was inspired not by Newton’s prism, but by Nature’s:

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky;

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!…5

This book is centred on two scientific lives, those of the astronomer William Herschel and the chemist Humphry Davy. Their discoveries dominate the period, yet they offer two almost diametrically opposed versions of the Romantic ‘scientist’, a term not coined until 1833, after they were both dead. It also gives an account of their assistants and protégés, who eventually became much more than that, and handed on the flame to the very different world of professional Victorian science. But it draws in many other lives, and it is interrupted by many episodes of scientific endeavour and high adventure so characteristic of the Romantic spirit: ballooning, exploring, soul-hunting. These were all part of the great journey.

It is also held together by, as a kind of chorus figure or guide, a scientific Virgil. It is no coincidence that he began his career a young and naïve scientific traveller, an adventurer and secret journal-keeper. However, he ended it as the longest-serving, most experienced and most domineering President of the Royal Society: the botanist, diplomat and éminence grise Sir Joseph Banks. As a young man Banks sailed with Captain Cook round the world, setting out in 1768 on that perilous three-year voyage into the unknown. This voyage may count as one of the earliest distinctive exploits of Romantic science, not least because it involved a long stay in a beautiful but ambiguous version of Paradise-Otaheite, or the South Pacific island of Tahiti.

 The fine survey by Lisa Jardine, Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution (1999), gives a vivid picture of the leading figures in the seventeenth-century scientific revolution across Europe, and includes a significant introductory essay on the emerging role of science in modern society. See also my bibliography, ‘The Bigger Picture’, page 485.

 The apple fell in his orchard at Woolthorpe, Lincolnshire, where Newton, aged twenty-five, had retired from Cambridge during the Plague of 1665. Various versions of the story began to appear after his death in 1727. It appears in Stukeley’s unpublished Memoir of Newton, originally written in 1727, but not given to the Royal Society in manuscript until 1752; in unpublished notes for a biography by his nephew John Conduit; and for the first time in print in Voltaire’s Letters on the English Nation (1734). Part of the power of the story was that it replaced the sacred Biblical account of the Fall from Innocence in Genesis (Eve and the apple) with a secular parable of the Ascent to Knowledge. See Patricia Fara, Newton: The Making of Genius (2005); and for a broad visionary perspective, Jacob Bronowski’s scientific classic The Ascent of Man (1973).

 A brief guide to the many figures who jostle into this book, some familiar but others obscure or unexpected, appears in my Cast List, page 471.

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