Biographies & Memoirs


Young Scientists


By the end of the 1820s British science had lost its three international stars, the three scientific knights whose names had been renowned throughout Europe. The deaths of Joseph Banks in 1820, William Herschel in 1822, and finally of Humphry Davy in 1829, marked the passing of an age. The idea that they had between them created a distinctively British science was itself part of Banks’s great bequest to the nation. But with these departures its future seemed uncertain, and its reputation undefended. Who among the younger generation would take British science forward? And who would fund it? It was a time of great uncertainty. The Times helpfully announced that an age of scientific giants had passed away.1

The questions became more insistent. Was the Royal Society fulfilling its role? Was British science itself in decline, compared to France and Germany? Did science have a recognised social and moral role in society? Ever since the Vitalism debate, such questions were no longer limited to a small circle of experts and academics. Public concern about the role of science in society was now widespread. The thirty-four-year-old Thomas Carlyle, newly arrived in Edinburgh and freshly bearded for the fight, was just beginning to make his name as a polemical essayist and an aggressive social commentator. His first influential tract, Signs of the Times, dominated almost an entire issue of the Edinburgh Review in spring 1829. Here Carlyle announced the demise of Romanticism and the relentless arrival of ‘the Age of Machinery’.

Carlyle made the problematic role of the man of modern science a central issue. He attacked the dehumanising effects of utilitarianism, statistics and the ‘science of mechanics’, and opposed the world of the laboratory to those of art, poetry and religion. Though he did not name the Royal Society or the Royal Institution, he came very close to it. ‘No Newton, by silent meditation, now discovers the system of the world from the falling of an apple: but some quite other than Newton stands in his Museum, his Scientific Institution, and behind whole batteries of retorts, digesters and galvanic piles imperatively “interrogates Nature”-who, however, shows no haste to answer.’2 Four years later, warming to his theme, Carlyle would announce definitively: ‘The Progress of Science…is to destroy Wonder, and in its stead substitute Mensuration and Numeration.’3♣

In the Royal Society’s presidential election of 1829, John Herschel became the natural candidate of the young scientists, despite his own deep personal misgivings. At thirty-seven he was recognised as a polymath at the height of his powers. He had been Secretary of the Society for five years, and had published over a hundred papers on subjects ranging from astronomy to zoology. He was known to be developing a philosophy of ‘pure inductive science’, heralded as the true heir to Baconian thought. Moreover, he was wealthy and settled. In March 1829 he had heeded his aunt Caroline’s advice and married a very beautiful and gifted Scottish girl, Margaret Brodie Stewart. Above all, he was the son of his father, Sir William.

But Herschel soon found himself drawn into a public debate about the personalities and administration of science, quite unlike anything his father had experienced. The unworldly Michael Faraday could not be persuaded to stand. The mercurial Charles Babbage was regarded as unreliable and unsuitable. Both Wollaston and Thomas Young were dead, while the aristocratic candidate was the charming but ineffective Duke of Sussex, brother to King George IV, who knew nothing about science at all-although this was considered by some more traditional Fellows to be an overwhelming advantage.

After a good deal of gentlemanly infighting, during which Herschel threatened to withdraw his candidature, the Duke of Sussex was elected in 1830 by a very narrow majority: 119 votes to 111. Babbage, checking his statistics, noted with disgust that less than 33 per cent of the membership had voted. This unsatisfactory result led to a breakaway movement by a handful of young scientists around Herschel. They began to think of circumventing the Royal Society entirely, and appealing to a wholly different constituency: the ‘amateur’ men (and women) of science who belonged to the provincial scientific or ‘philosophical’ societies and institutions outside London. As if too soothe Herschel, he was promptly knighted, on a recommendation that many thought came from the Duke of Sussex, anxious to placate his rival. If so, it did not have the desired effect.

Between 1829 and 1831 a series of publications by John Herschel, his friend Charles Babbage and the Scottish science writer David Brewster (who had done fine research work on polarised light) pursued the emotive theme of the supposed ‘decline of Science in Britain’. The debate was taken up by the leading journals, rapidly moved beyond the Royal Society, and became one about national culture and the role of the man of science in society. It was no coincidence that all this took place at the same time as the national self-questioning reflected in the violent political debates surrounding the Great Reform Bill.


The first salvo was fired by Charles Babbage, when he released a slim but carefully targeted volume, provocatively entitled Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, in the spring of 1830. Two years previously Babbage had been appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, Newton’s old chair, and he had considerable influence. It was known that his lectures on astronomy at the Royal Institution in 1817 had won the approval of Sir William Herschel, and that his research work had been supported by Sir Humphry Davy. He was wealthy, and had a large house in London at Dorset Square. Here he was working on his famous ‘Difference Engine No. 1’, a prototype computer which would require 25,000 brass cogs to function. After expending over £17,000 (a colossal sum) of his own money on it, he was understandably keen on the notion of government funding for such projects. This gave added energy, or bias, to his attack.

Babbage’s prototype computer later became one of the legends of Victorian science, and a parable about the failure of government research funding. At the point when he ran out of money in 1832, Babbage had succeeded in constructing one self-contained section of his Difference Engine No. 1, employing 2,000 brass components, which still exists and works impeccably as an automatic calculator. A more sophisticated ‘Analytical Engine’ using a punched-card input and mechanical ‘store’ on 50,000 brass cogs, the genuine equivalent of a modern computer’s RAM ‘memory’, was designed but never constructed. No one knows if this would have worked. However, Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2, designed in the 1840s to use 4,000 brass cogs, was actually constructed by the Science Museum in 1991, and with some minor alterations works to this day, capable of calculating to thirty-one places of decimals-an impressive power. It weighs three tons and cost £300,000-considerably cheaper, in relative terms, than the original.4♣

Babbage’s outspoken book was a polemical exposé of weak British scientific institutions and casual attitudes to research. He compared these with the culture of scientific research fostered by the great Continental Academies of Science, in Paris and Berlin. Though ‘eminently distinguished for mechanical and manufacturing ingenuity’, Britain was shamefully ‘below other nations’ in pure sciences. While he referred respectfully to the achievements of both Sir Humphry Davy and Sir William Herschel, Babbage implied that times had changed radically.

He instanced the lack of government funding for research, the fact that there had so far been no honours for distinguished scientists such as Faraday and the meteorologist Beaufort, and the lack of recognition for the chemical work of John Dalton and Wollaston. He criticised the weakness of science teaching in the universities (apart, evidently, from his own field, mathematics) and the failure of the Royal Society to fund large scientific projects, or promote the public understanding of science in Britain. Despite its ringing motto, Nullius in Verba, the Society fostered no generally agreed philosophy of science.

Babbage’s attack on the Royal Society became increasingly contemptuous. Where, he asked, were the British equivalents of Berzelius (Sweden), Humboldt (Germany), Oersted (Denmark) or Cuvier (France)?5 He claimed that the Society’s members were lazy, elitist, ignorant and largely dedicated to club dinners. In a devastating early use of statistical analysis, he showed that only 10 per cent of the 700 members had published two or more scientific papers.6 He also jeered that British scientific societies were so easy for an amateur to join, that for the expenditure of precisely ‘ten pounds, nine shillings and nine pence ha’penny’ he had calculated that anyone could obtain ‘a comet’s trail of upwards 40 letters’ as initials after his name-like FRS, for example.7

Babbage described the present Royal Society with a simile drawn pointedly from Herschel’s work. It was utterly devoid of ‘bright stars’, and ‘only visible to distant nations, as a faint Nebula in the obscure horizon of English science’.8 He also urged a critical attitude to ‘publication of experimental data’, and the necessity for peer-reviewing-not, up till then, considered quite fair play. As a further provocation, he gleefully introduced such ungentlemanly terms as ‘hoaxing, forging, trimming and cooking results’, which he claimed should be applied very strenuously.9

Babbage concluded the book with a suggestive comparison between the contrasted scientific styles of Wollaston and Davy. The first had been a meticulous, patient scientist, utterly without worldly ambition, and modest and private in his profession. He was primarily interested in getting precise results that avoided all possibility of bias or error. The second was a restless scientific enquirer, rapid and ambitious in all his work, superb at popularising and explaining his projects, driven by the desire to pursue and establish the truth, and to be the first to do so at whatever cost. Wollaston, he concluded, was a pure, saint-like man of science, while Davy was also a publicist and visionary: ‘Wollaston could never have been a poet; Davy might have been a great one.’ In the future, Babbage seemed to imply, British science would need both types.10

He added, for good measure, a section describing John Herschel at work in his laboratory at Slough, analysing ‘the dark lines seen in the solar spectrum by Fraunhofer’. Babbage perhaps intended a sort of parable of science for the new generation. His story went as follows. When Babbage first peered carefully at the shimmering solar image projected through Herschel’s prism, he could not see these dark Fraunhofer lines, though he knew they were there. Herschel then commented to him: ‘An object is frequently not seen, from not knowing how to see it, rather than from any deficit in the organ of vision…I will instruct you how to see them.’11 After some time spent re-examining and refocusing the image, Babbage could see them perfectly. The point was that science must always be more than the simple observation of phenomena or data. It was simultaneously a subjective training in observational skills, self-criticism and interpretation: a complete education. This was of course precisely what William Herschel had said forty years before, about learning to see with a telescope.

To add a final sting in the tail, Babbage slipped in an Appendix enthusiastically praising the 1828 conference of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, which he had attended. It had great scientists-like its President Humboldt, who had delivered an address praising Goethe-and great visions of the future. It would next meet in Vienna in 1831. He now proposed a new ‘Union of Scientific Societies’ in Britain, to follow this admirable German model, with annual meetings in cities outside London. By all means the Royal Society could send participants, if it should so bestir itself. But who else would rally to the cause? Babbage’s subversive tract was the first manifesto for what in 1831 would become the British Association for the Advancement of Science.12

Michael Faraday would not be drawn into this whirlpool of controversy. Instead he encouraged a Dutch chemist, Gerard Möll, to write a gentle reply and reproof to Babbage, ‘By A Foreigner’. Möll observed that ‘the English have quite enough of their natural and foreign political enemies, without waging a civil-scientific war between themselves…The Barons of the French Institute will be highly amused…A neutral foreigner cannot help seeing with regret Englishmen scoff and rail at things which ought to have been looked upon as the pride of their country.’13

John Herschel was not to be deterred by this appeal to his patriotic and gentlemanly instincts. He followed his friend with a quite different and much subtler line of attack. He decided to put forward a progressive view of British science, and hold out the possibilities of a golden future.


Herschel’s quietly phrased but immensely authoritative book A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy was published as the first volume in a popular series, Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia. Despite its anodyne title, deliberately chosen to offset Babbage’s style of provocation, this became a hugely popular work which would run into many new editions throughout the early Victorian period.

John Stuart Mill would recall in his Autobiography how, after his nervous breakdown and therapeutic immersion in the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge, it was Herschel’s book that showed him how far he had recovered his intellectual grasp by 1837. ‘Under the impulse given me by the thoughts excited by Dr Whewell, I read again Sir J. Herschel’s Study of Natural Philosophy, and I was able to measure the progress my mind had made, by the great help I now found in this work.’14

Herschel first looked back at the great triumphs of Romantic science, very properly including work done in France and Germany, and appealed for the public understanding of ‘professional science’ in Britain. It was a profession first proposed by Bacon, based on the fundamental value of free enquiry.15 Herschel defined its field as a rapidly expanding arc of scientific disciplines: the classical ones-mathematics, astronomy and optics-now joined by the study of electricity, chemistry, magnetism, geology, botany and gases.16 He argued that common to all of them was the three-part ‘inductive’ method. First, the precise gathering of quantitative data by observation and experiment; second, the emergence of a general ‘hypothesis’ from this data; and third, the testing of this hypothesis once more by experiment and observation, to see if it could be disproved.17 This inductive discipline was central to all sciences, and led on to the first aim of free scientific enquiry: the investigation of the unknown. ‘The immediate object we propose to ourselves in physical theories is the analysis of phenomena, and the knowledge of the hidden processes of Nature in their production, so far as they can be traced by us.’18 Nature was still hidden and mysterious, alive with ‘processes’ and powers, though Herschel was careful to avoid any hint of Naturphilosophie, or any speculation about the ‘Power and Intelligence’ that might ultimately maintain it. Nevertheless, nature revealed continuously ‘wonder upon wonder’.19

This was greeted as the first attempt since Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, or New Instrument (1620) to write a popular treatise on the inductive philosophy of science. It had an engraving of Bacon (with both microscope and telescope-micromegas) on the title page, and began with a Latin epigraph from Cicero: In primis, hominis est propria VERI inquisitio atque investigatio’. This was translated for the reader as ‘Above all other things, Man is distinguished by his pursuit and investigation of TRUTH’-an interesting assertion. Of course the whole text was written in English, though Herschel chose the shrewd device of organising it in numbered paragraphs, as well as conventional literary chapters. Indeed it emerged that Herschel, unlike his father, could write fluently, and sometimes with great imaginative force. (One other effect of his Cambridge education was that throughout his life he wrote admirable light verse, and later completed a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.) In one passage he argued the necessity for clarity and precision in the use of scientific terms with almost poetic originality.

For example, the words-square, circle, a hundred etc convey to the mind notions so complete in themselves, and so distinct from everything else, that we are sure when we use them we know the whole of our own meaning. It is widely different with words expressing natural objects and mixed relations.

Take, for instance, IRON. Different persons attach very different ideas to this word. One who has never heard of magnetism has a widely different notion of IRON from one in the contrary predicament. The vulgar, who regard this metal as incombustible, and the chemist, who sees it burn with the utmost fury, and who has other reasons for regarding it as one of the most combustible bodies in nature;-the poet, who uses it as an emblem of rigidity; and the smith and the engineer, in whose hands it is plastic, and moulded like wax into every form;-the jailer, who prizes it as an obstruction, and the electrician who sees in it only a channel of open communication by which-that most impassable of objects-air may be traversed by his imprisoned fluid, have all different, and all imperfect, notions of the same word.

The meaning of such a term is like a rainbow-everybody sees a different one, and all maintain it to be the same.20

That final embracing reference to ‘everybody’s’ rainbow was a deliberate act of inclusion: Newton’s rainbow, but also Wordsworth’s and Keats’s and Goethe’s are all implied.

Herschel went on to praise the intellectual and even spiritual value of the true scientific outlook. Everything in nature became interesting and significant, nothing was beneath notice. The most ‘trifling natural objects’, such as a soap bubble, an apple or a pebble, could reveal a scientific law (respectively, the laws of aerostatics, gravitation or geology).

To the natural philosopher there is no natural object unimportant or trifling…A mind that has once imbibed a taste for scientific enquiry has within itself an inexhaustible source of pure and exciting contemplations. One would think that Shakespeare had such a mind in view when he describes a contemplative man finding

Tongues in trees-books in the running brooks

Sermons in stones-and good in everything

Where the uninformed and unenquiring eye perceives neither novelty nor beauty, he walks in the midst of wonders.21

It is intriguing that Herschel was quoting from Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Act II, scene i), a scene which takes place in the idealised and magical Forest of Arden. Herschel evidently saw the ‘contemplative’ man of science naturally inhabiting such a sylvan world, a place of visions and transformations, where all turns out for the good. So among the triumphs of contemporary science he listed a series of simple discoveries and technological inventions that had hugely improved human safety: among them the lightning conductor, the lighthouse lens, the safety lamp, iodine and chlorine disinfectant (the last three being Davy’s).22

Like Davy, Herschel chose chemistry as the exemplary discipline of the Romantic period. Developing from the errors of alchemy and phlogiston theory, chemistry had been ‘placed in the ranks of the exact sciences-a science of number, weight and measure’. It had produced practical applications in every sphere: medicine, agriculture, manufacturing, aerostation and meteorology, for example. But it had also advanced pure science: the doctrines of oxygen, latent heat, atomic weight, polar electricity and the prime elements (of which more than fifty were now known). Moreover, this was the achievement of an international group: Lavoisier, Black, Dalton, Berzelius, Gay-Lussac and Davy.23

In ten brilliantly clear and even thrilling pages (paragraphs numbered 368-77), Herschel gave an international history of fifty years’ researches into electricity, from Franklin and Galvani to Davy and Oersted. From early vague ideas of some mysterious natural fluid-a ‘wonderful agent’-seen in lightning strikes, the Aurora Borealis or ‘the crackling sparks which fly from a cat’s back when stroked’, he traced the experimental path which led to increasingly precise and sophisticated concepts of electrical current, conductors, positive and negative poles, batteries, charge and discharge, animal electricity (’an unfortunate epithet’), nervous circuitry, chemical affinity (Davy’s ‘total revolution’) and ‘the wonderful phenomenon of electro-magnetism’, which awaited further exploration.24

Herschel prophetically implied that electricity and electro-magnetism still hid many secrets, and that their investigation would become the leading science of the new age. This would indeed be Faraday’s coming field of triumph. He summarised (paragraph no. 376) this pursuit in the image of a great and noble sea voyage of exploration. ‘There is something in this which reminds us of the obstinate adherence of Columbus to his notion of the necessary existence of the New World; and the whole history of this beautiful discovery may serve to teach us reliance on those general analogies and parallels between great branches of science by which one strongly reminds us of another, though no direct connection appears.’25

This notion of a great network or connection of sciences, beginning to form a single philosophy and culture, was crucial to his book. In the same positive vein Herschel argued that science, while often going against common sense or intuition, expanded the human imagination with previously inconceivable ideas of movement or magnitude. The examples he gave were the speed of starlight, the movement of a gnat’s wings, or the vibrations of colour frequency. Finally he promoted the moral value of science. It was a source of clarity and intellectual excitement, and (perhaps more controversially) of philosophical calm in troubled times. In all these ways John Herschel sought to give ‘the man of science’ a new and central place in English society-and not just the Royal Society.

Faraday himself wrote appreciatively to Herschel from the Royal Institution, in one of his breathless, enthusiastic screeds. ‘When your work on the study of Nat. Phil. came out, I read it as all others did with delight. I took it as a school book for philosophers and I feel it has made me a better reasoner and even experimenter and has altogether heightened my character and made me if I may be permitted to say so a better philosopher.’26

Many others felt the same. For one undergraduate at Cambridge the book was like a summons to arms. ‘Humboldt’s Personal Narrative and Herschel’s On Natural Philosophy stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science. No one of a dozen other books influenced me nearly so much as these two.’ The undergraduate was twenty-two-year-old Charles Darwin, and his humble contribution was to be On the Origin of Species (1859).27


It was now the turn of David Brewster (1781-1868). Educated in Edinburgh, Brewster was a physicist who had contributed widely to scientific journals and encyclopaedias. His field was applied optics, such as lighthouse lenses, and he invented the kaleidoscope; but he was also inventing the new career of science journalism. A Calvinist who had abandoned the Church, he was a natural evangelist for science. He decided that a campaign rather than a book was needed, and now published specific proposals for a new national scientific association in a number of magazines, including the Quarterly Review. He wrote urgently to Babbage in February 1830: ‘I wish you could spare ten minutes to my equation…and would it not be useful to organize an Association for the purpose of protecting and promoting the secular interests of Science? A few influential noblemen and MP’s would give great help in forwarding such an object.’28

Such an Association was to meet annually, as Babbage had suggested, on the German model, at different provincial cities-but not London, being the territory of the Royal Society. It was to draw its membership primarily from the universities, the House of Commons and the local ‘Literary and Philosophical’ societies in the great northern cities. There had been fewer than ten of these when Banks had begun at the Royal Society in the 1780s, among the earliest being Manchester, Derby and Newcastle upon Tyne. There were some thirty in existence by the time Davy was elected in 1820, and nearly seventy by the time Charles Darwin came back from the Galapagos islands in 1836. This was the beginning of the historic expansion of Victorian science.29

There was much campaigning, recruiting and arguing throughout 1830-31. Babbage in London, Brewster in Edinburgh and Whewell in Cambridge led the drive. A typical missive from Whewell read: ‘I can see abundance of good things that such a Society may do: one matter which requires multiplied and extensive fagging is meteorology, which I hope Dalton may do…Sedgwick is still hammering in Wales. Darwin…is just on the point of setting out as a naturalist with Captain Fitzroy who is to complete the survey of the south end of America. I expect he will bring you home the tip of Cape Horn…‘30

Faraday still remained elusive, and Herschel-mindful of his position as Secretary to the Royal Society-tactfully explained in an immensely long letter that he could only send ‘sincere good wishes for its utility and consequent success’. He did however recognise ‘the want in this country and in the actual state of science, of a great, central and presiding power to give an impulse and direction to enquiry’.31 By autumn 1831 it was still hoped that a few other ‘scientific lions may be allowed to perambulate the country’.

Finally, a somewhat depleted first meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science took place at York in October 1831. Undaunted, the members vigorously discussed comets, railways, geological strata, the Aurora Borealis, marsupial mating habits, and subversively drank Joseph Priestley’s health (a reproach to the Royal Society and a greeting to America).32 A combative keynote speech about the development of science in Britain was delivered by the first President, William Rowan Hamilton, but this was not felt to have quite the reach or impact of Humboldt in Vienna. There was some lively disagreement (which was to continue for many years) over the correct balance between dinners and lectures, or ‘feasting versus philosophy’. However, in the absence of figures like Faraday and Herschel, the whole thing slipped away almost entirely unreported in the press.

A second meeting of the fledgling Association took place at Oxford in 1832. A fine theatrical performance from Professor William Buckland on the subject of geology and the courtship of primitive reptiles received some praise. This time The Times deigned to notice the occasion, but loftily dismissed it as ‘a mere unexplained display of philosophical toys’, and pointed out that Buckland sometimes seemed to forget that he lectured ‘in the presence of ladies’.33

But with the third meeting in June 1833 the British Association really began to make a national impact. It was held at Cambridge, itself considered a major coup, and the capture of the heartland of progressive rational thought in Britain. Cambridge was also Newton’s shrine, and the base of the powerful ‘Trinity and John’s’ group of scientific academics. This time the list of those attending included almost all those who would soon become the rising stars in the firmament of early Victorian science: Michael Faraday, Sir John Herschel, John Dalton, Charles Babbage, Sir David Brewster, Adam Sedgwick, William Whewell, Thomas Chalmers, Thomas Malthus and William Somerville. The only notable absentee was Charles Darwin, just then botanising in Uruguay during the Beagle’s voyage.34

Some of ‘the ladies’ were also pressing for admittance, including several powerful scientific wives, like Margaret Herschel and Mary Somerville. They pretended to be fully engaged in hosting receptions and choosing the menus, while unofficially they listened at the back of the lecture halls, took notes, and critically judged the quality (and appearance) of the speakers. The major debate was on the nature of the Aurora Borealis, which symbolically called upon a wide range of scientific interests including meteorology, optics, electricity, magnetism, polar exploration and solar astronomy. It was held at the heart of the university, in the Cambridge Senate House, on King’s Parade. The main luncheon, a cold collation for 600 members, was staged at Trinity, with guests drifting across Great Court to toast the statue of Newton. Then came fireworks, and a ‘botanical barge’ energetically punted up the Cam. One other noticeable participant, now ill and frail, but still intellectually formidable, was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, aged sixty.

Coleridge was put up in a friend’s rooms at Trinity itself, and remarked appreciatively that his bed was ‘as near as I can describe it a couple of sacks full of potatoes tied together…Truly I lay down at night a man, and arose in the morning a bruise.’ This, rather than opium, might explain why he was never able to rise till the afternoon, though he always had ‘a crowded levee’ at his bedside. Nevertheless he stayed for three days, attended many of the meetings, and always found undergraduates and professors crowding round to talk to him. He certainly was one of the lions, though from a disappearing age.

All his old enthusiasm for scientific matters came sweeping back, and he was soon in the thick of it, boldly announcing that ‘Lyell’s system of geology is half truth-but not more’; while Descartes’ vortices ‘were not a hypothesis: they rested on no facts at all…Your subtle fluid etc is pure gratuitous assumption.’ Then he delighted everyone by suddenly saying: ‘That fine old Quaker philosopher Dalton’s face was like-like All Soul’s College.’ This was a very Oxford joke in Cambridge.35

He was up to the minute with Herschel’s Natural Philosophy, and gave an impressively Coleridgean account of the role of ‘hypothesis or theory’ in the inductive philosophy. ‘The use of a Theory in the real sciences is to help the investigator to a complete view of all the hitherto discovered parts relating to it; it is a Collected View, θεωρια [Theoria], of all he yet knows in one. Of course whilst any facts remain unknown, no theory can be exactly true, because every new part must necessarily displace the relation of all the others. A theory therefore only helps investigation: it cannot invent or discover.’36

Memories of Humphry Davy must have come flooding back, in all the glow of his Bristol youth, for Coleridge got on particularly well with the young Michael Faraday. Unlike Lady Davy, he was favourably impressed by Faraday’s fine open face, with its mop of curling hair and gazing wideapart eyes, and his modest manner, with its peculiar directness and intensity. ‘I was exceedingly pleased with Faraday, he seemed to me to have the true temperament of Genius-that of carrying on the spring and freshness of youthful, nay boyish, feelings into the mature strength of manhood.’

This was a signal recognition by Coleridge, who had defined such ageless energy as a characteristic of literary genius some seventeen years before, in Chapter 4 of his Biographia Literaria (1816). In a passage describing the poetry of Wordsworth, he wrote: ‘To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar-with sun and moon and stars throughout the year, And man and woman-this is the character and privilege of genius, and one of the marks which distinguish genius from talent.’37 He was now applying these literary criteria to a man of science. In his last published work, On Church and State (1830), he had included men of science as an essential part of what he christened ‘the clerisy’: that is, the diffuse body of thinkers, writers, teachers and opinion-formers who made up the intelligentsia or informing culture of a nation.38

At one meeting, chaired by William Whewell, Coleridge was drawn into a passionate discussion of semantics. It revolved around the question of what exactly someone who works ‘in the real sciences’ (as he had phrased it) should be called. This is how Whewell reported the British Association debate in the Quarterly Review of 1834:

Formerly the ‘learned’ embraced in their wide grasp all the branches of the tree of knowledge, mathematicians as well as philologers, physical as well as antiquarian speculators. But these days are past…This difficulty was felt very oppressively by the members of the BAAS at Cambridge last summer. There was no general term by which these gentlemen could describe themselves with reference to their pursuits.

‘Philosophers’ was felt to be too wide and lofty a term, and was very properly forbidden them by Mr. Coleridge, both in his capacity as philologer and metaphysician. ‘Savans’ was rather assuming and besides too French; but some ingenious gentleman [in fact Whewell himself] proposed that, by analogy with ‘artist’, they might form ‘scientist’-and added that there could be no scruple to this term since we already have such words as ‘economist’ and ‘atheist’-but this was not generally palatable.39

The analogy with ‘atheist’ was of course fatal. Adam Sedgwick exploded: ‘Better die of this want [of a term] than bestialize our tongue by such a barbarism.’ But in fact ‘scientist’ came rapidly into general use from this date, and was recognised in the OED by 1840. Sedgwick later reflected more calmly, and made up for his outburst by producing a memorable image. ‘Such a coinage has always taken place at the great epochs of discovery: like the medals that are struck at the beginning of a new reign.’40

This argument over a single word-‘scientists’-gave a clue to the much larger debate that was steadily surfacing in Britain at this crucial period of transition 1830-34. Lurking beneath the semantics lay the whole question of whether the new generation of professional ‘scientists’ would promote safe religious belief or a dangerous secular materialism. Hitherto, either austere intellectual Deism, held for example by William Herschel, or else the rather more picturesque Natural Theology conveniently accepted by Davy (at least in his public lectures) had disguised this problem, whatever the revelations of astronomy or geology, or the inspired ragings of Shelley.

For many Romantic scientists, with a robust intellectual belief in the ‘argument by Design’, there was no immediate contradiction between religion and science: rather the opposite. Science was a gift of God or Providence to mankind, and its purpose was to reveal the wonders of His design. This indeed was the essence of ‘natural’ religion, as promoted for example by William Paley in his Natural Theology (1802), with its famous analogy with the divine watchmaker. It was the faith that brought Mungo Park back alive from his first Niger expedition. It was the faith that inspired Michael Faraday to become a Deacon in the Sandemanian Church in July 1832.

But public faith often differed from private beliefs. Whatever he said in his famous lectures, Davy’s poetry and his posthumous writings, such as Consolations in Travel, suggested a kind of science mysticism that certainly precluded a Christian God, and possibly even any kind of Creator at all. Others, like William Herschel, had been content to rely on an instinctive, perhaps deliberately unexamined, belief in a benign Creator somewhere distantly behind the great unfolding scheme of nature. Though in Herschel’s case, his own observations had shown how extremely-appallingly-distant, both in time and space, that Creator must be. Moreover, his sister Caroline never once mentioned God anywhere in her journals.41 As for Joseph Banks, his sister Sophia had had no high opinion of his natural piety.

Yet with the growing public knowledge of geology and astronomy, and the recognition of ‘deep space’ and ‘deep time’, fewer and fewer men or women of education can have believed in a literal, Biblical six days of creation. However, science itself had yet to produce its own theory (or myth) of creation, and there was no alternative Newtonian Book of Genesis-as yet. That is why Darwin’s On the Origin of Species appeared so devastating when it was finally published in 1859. It was not that it reduced the six days of Biblical creation to myth: this had already been largely done by Lyell and the geologists. What it demonstrated was that there was no need for a divine creation at all. There was no divine creation of species, no miraculous invention of butterflies’ wings or cats’ eyes or birds’ song. The process of evolution by ‘natural selection’ replaced any need for ‘intelligent design’ in nature. Darwin had indeed written a new Book of Genesis.

Over the following five years, the well-meaning 8th Earl of Bridgewater would commission a whole series of booklets by the leading men of science, intended to show how British scientific research and discovery unfailingly underpinned Christian-and specifically Anglican-belief. They were to illustrate what might have been called an unproven hypothesis: ‘The Goodness of God as Manifested in the Creation’. The thankless task of composing these Bridgewater Treatises (1830-36) was piously or sportively undertaken by Chalmers (on astronomy), the humorous Professor Buckland (on geology), Whewell (on mathematics), Charles Bell (on anatomy) and several others of lesser note. Thanks to the Duke of Bridgewater’s bequest, they were all outstandingly remunerated at £1,000 each, plus all profits.42

Reading Buckland on geology, Mary Somerville mournfully observed: ‘facts are such stubborn things’. Faraday, a lifelong Sandemanian, refused to make any comment. Charles Babbage threatened to write a ninth and scathing last treatise, but he never finished it.43

On a more whimsical note, William Sotheby, Coleridge’s old friend and the translator of Dante, celebrated this third conference with a long, prismatic piece of light verse, ‘Lines on the 3rd Meeting of the BAAS at Cambridge, 1833’. He set out a new tradition, the roll-call of the great ‘scientists’. Among others he saluted Bacon, Newton, William Herschel, Wollaston, Davy, Faraday, Dalton, John Herschel, Babbage, Roget, Hutton, Playfair and Lyell. But he only mentioned one woman: not Caroline Herschel, but Mary Somerville; and she was noticed, ironically, for her official absence.

Why wert thou absent? Thou whose cultured mind,

Smoothing the path of knowledge to mankind

Adorn’st thy page deep stored with thought profound…

While Cambridge-glorying in her Newton’s fame-

Records with his, thy woman’s honoured name,

High-gifted Somerville!…44

Later meetings of the British Association took place, as planned, rotating round the great provincial capitals, but studiously avoiding London. There was now increasing competition to be the host metropolis, as it was realised that the Association was beginning to attract both international recognition and a considerable local boost to city finances. Edinburgh was chosen in 1834, followed by Dublin in 1835, Bristol in 1836, Liverpool in 1837, Newcastle in 1838, Birmingham in 1839 and Glasgow in 1840. By this time over 2,000 people were attending each year, the press coverage was huge, and the official membership had risen to over 1,000.

But the early press reception-now increasingly important in British science-was surprisingly rough, and revealed all sorts of class and cultural anxieties. The Times leaders thundered out disapproval annually from 1832 to 1835: ‘It is the necessary consequence of the Spirit of the Age…The principle of humbug, the principle of Penny Magazines, and Mechanics Institutes, the principle of spreading the waters of knowledge over a large surface without caring how shallow they may be-The Association, we prophesy, will soon see its end.’45 To emphasise its unimpeachable accuracy, The Times consistently spelt Michael Faraday as ‘Farraday’.

The magazine John Bull added to the chorus in 1835: ‘Amongst the extensive Humbugs which so eminently distinguish this very extraordinarily enlightened Age, none perhaps is more glaring than the Meeting of what is called the British Association for the Advancement of Science…With the aid of concerts and dancing, fireworks and fine women, sound claret and strong whisky, the Sages make out remarkably well.’46

Scenting a good story, Charles Dickens launched a satirical series in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1838, entitled ‘The Full report of the First Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything’. It was supplied with mocking cartoons by his gifted illustrator George Cruikshank, who had achieved such a success with Sketches by Boz. In it Dickens invented some early fictional scientists: Professor Snore, Professor Doze and Dr Wheezy, though all of them were more benign and ineffectual than Dr Victor Frankenstein.47


While these public battles raged, Michael Faraday quietly continued his experiments at the Royal Institution. He was now released from Davy’s oppressive shadow, yet still clearly inspired by his memory. He worked immensely hard, giving his first Bakerian Lecture to the Royal Society in 1829, and also accepting a simultaneous post as Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. He expanded his work on electromagnetism, and began the construction of the first electrical generators, by producing an ‘alternating’ electrical current. This would lead to electrical dynamos that would ultimately revolutionise industry as much as James Watt’s steam engine. His experiment with magnetic coils and a galvanometer (which was made to move without physical contact), carried out at the Institution’s laboratory on 29 August 1831, was said to have ended ‘the Age of Steam’ at a stroke, and begun the new ‘Age of Electricity’.48

Faraday also took on from Davy the great task of educating the public in scientific matters. In 1826 he began his series of Friday Evening Discourses, in which a whole range of scientific topics were carefully presented and vividly explained to a general audience. From this grew perhaps his greatest innovation, his Christmas Lectures for Children, which are still given annually (and now televised). The classic example became his brilliantly clear and inventive series ‘The Chemical History of a Candle’. This started with the simple notion of flame and combustion, the very process that had so entranced the young Davy. It was beautifully followed out, step by step, into an entire panorama of natural processes: human and animal respiration, plant growth, and the entire global carbon cycle. Faraday would talk and explain with quiet, gentle authority, occasionally bursting out with some delighted exclamation. ‘Wonderful is it to find that the change produced by respiration, which seems so injurious to us-for we cannot breathe air twice over!-is the very life and support of plants and vegetables that grow upon the surface of the earth.’49

These lectures were perhaps Faraday’s best tribute to his great and difficult patron, and one of the last great documents of Romantic science. ‘The Chemical History of a Candle’ was eventually adapted by Dickens, without any satirical intent, for his family magazine Household Words in 1850.


Other important things had been stirring in the world of science writing. David Brewster had begun to work on the first ever biography of Isaac Newton, designed not only to explain the work, but to draw an analytical portrait (within certain limits of propriety) of the great man’s mind and temperament. Mary Somerville, wife of a Royal Society Fellow, had also set herself to become a science-populariser, starting with an English translation and adaptation (1831) of Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste, and with general essays and reviews of the different scientific disciplines.

The geologist Charles Lyell began in 1830 to bring out his classic work Principles of Geology, which would finally use scientific evidence to reject the Biblical account of short-scale creation of the earth, as maintained by every authority from Cuvier and Paley to Buffon and Buckland. Lyell’s proposal of a ‘deep time’ corresponded to the ‘deep space’ cosmology of William Herschel. It would ultimately provide the supportive authority for Charles Darwin, his great friend, to accept the deep time necessary for evolution by natural selection to take place.

But during these five years of intense controversy from 1829 to 1834, it was the publication of four literary works that contributed most powerfully to the debate about what ‘a scientist’ really was, or should be. They were all published in popular series aimed at the general public, such as Murray’s Family Library. Such collections were intended to put contemporary ideas into general circulation and to reach the public at large. They reflected democratic stirrings, and the sense that ordinary people should be aware of what was being done in their name. These works helped to form the first public image of science, and the ambiguous feelings about scientists themselves.

Humphry Davy’s influential Consolations in Travel, or The Last Days of a Philosopher had already sharpened these discussions. The expanded posthumous edition issued in Murray’s Family Library in 1831 brought it to a much wider general readership, and made it one of the first popular works of scientific autobiography and speculation. It was regarded as a stimulating and eccentric book, which revealed the unexpected inner workings of a scientist’s imagination. Writing from aboard the Beagle, off the Río de la Plata in May 1833, Charles Darwin begged his sister to send it, alongside Hutton on geology, Scoresby on Arctic regions, and Paul Scrope on volcanoes.50

Davy’s strange and unforeseen speculations about the nature of social evolution, and the ‘planetary’ future of the human species, deeply impressed some, while they shocked others. When an American edition was issued, it was carefully edited with pious footnotes pointing out where Davy’s views were theologically unorthodox, and suggesting proper corrections. The work was referred to extensively by Charles Babbage and John Herschel in their own books. In his Preface to his Principles of Geology, Lyell mentioned Davy’s scientific speculations, but argued that the geology of ‘the great chemist’ was already fatally out of date, so swiftly was science now developing.51 Later, a copy appeared in Chapter 15 of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), where it lies on the drawing-room table like a guarantee of serious intent in the household.

David Brewster’s Life of Sir Isaac Newton, the first ever major scientific biography in Britain, was also issued in Murray’s Family Library in 1831. It deliberately set out to hold up a triumphant and inspiring image of British science to the nation at large, presenting Newton as a secular saint, ‘the high priest of science’ and a man of universal genius. It emphasised the creative importance of Newton’s boyhood, and the intense originality of his mind, although it carefully eschewed the wonderful story of the falling apple and universal gravity, as told originally by William Stukeley in 1727. Brewster had in fact visited the orchard at Woolthorpe in 1814, to him a sacred site, and inspected the legendary apple tree, and even attempted to take a graft from it. But he carefully restricted himself to mentioning this piece of unscientific idolatry in a footnote. Years later, however, in an expanded 1860 edition of his biography, he flamboyantly told the whole tale, which by now had become the most glorious and perhaps misleading Eureka story in British science.52

Throughout, Brewster emphasised the cultural importance of science in society. In Chapter I he presented a survey of British scientific discoveries, ending with a summary of William Herschel’s work, showing how a brilliant mind-even if originating abroad-could flourish in England when properly recognised and properly funded. He also emphasised the importance of biography for understanding ‘the scientific process by which a mind of acknowledged power actually proceeds in the path of successful enquiry’. Brewer added significantly: ‘The history of science does not furnish us with much information on this head, and if it is to be found at all, it must be gleaned from the biographies of eminent men.’53

Perhaps his greatest achievement was to popularise Newton’s most famous remark about the process of scientific discovery: ‘I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great Ocean of truth lay all before me.’ It was a modest and yet thrilling image, which would be carried by thousands of Victorian schoolchildren-and their parents-to the holiday beaches and sea-bathing that were just becoming popular.54

The delayed-but increasingly formidable-impact of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus had exactly the opposite effect. It clearly demonised science. The second edition was issued as a single pocket volume, in Bentley’s Standard Novels in 1831. It now had as its frontispiece an engraving of the ghastly Creature rearing up in the shadows of Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory, the gross limbs ill-fitted and distorted, the head bent forward and half-twisted from the shoulders, and the face carrying an expression of horror and disgust at its own monstrous existence.

The epigraph, from Adam’s lament in Milton’s Paradise Lost, read:

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me…?55

This edition first contained Mary’s memorable and haunting Introduction, which describes her conversations with Byron and Shelley about science at the Villa Diodati in 1816, the work of Erasmus Darwin, and the waking nightmare in which she first conceived the novel. Now, in this new Preface, she added her own retrospective commentary on the notorious passage in which the ‘hideous’ Creature comes to life. She presented this as a moment of terrible, blasphemous and irreversible scientific hubris.

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the Thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful Engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of Life which he had communicated would fade; that this Thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; that he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold! the horrid Thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.56 

Three years later a very different woman writer entered the field and took up the defence of science. Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences appeared in 1834, and was published in Murray’s Family Library. Its frontispiece showed drawings of Herschel’s nebulae. Though more didactic and pious in tone than the other books, it was a significant attempt to bring together new developments in the fields of astronomy, physics, chemistry, botany and geology as a single, ongoing scientific project of discovery. ‘The progress of modern science,’ Somerville wrote, ‘especially within the last five years, has been remarkable for a tendency to simplify the laws of nature, and to unite detached branches by general principles.’57

This search for unifying laws, as emphasised by John Herschel, is a central theme of Somerville’s study. So, for example, ‘Light, heat, sound and the waves of fluids, are all subject to the same laws of reflection, and indeed their undulatory theories are perfectly similar.’58 This allows her to discuss the action of sunshine, rain, frost, steam, clouds, steam engines, musical instruments and even ‘squeezing water out of a sponge’ in the same chapter, headed simply ‘Heat’.59

Newton remains the presiding genius of the book, though there is extensive discussion of the works of the Herschels, Faraday and Davy. A few European scientists are also included in the ‘whole circle of the sciences’,60 notably Alexander von Humboldt and Laplace (as has been noted, Somerville had herself popularised his difficult Mécanique Céleste as The Mechanism of the Heavens in 1831). But great Continental names like Lavoisier, Lamarck, Berzelius, Linnaeus, Buffon and Cuvier do not appear at all, not even in her Index, a truly astonishing omission. There is a sense of a more exclusively British science emerging.

In general Somerville is conventional in her piety, with many reverent references to the ‘conspicuous goodness of the First Cause’ and the ‘magnificence’ of divine creation which science reveals. Yet she has a number of passages which might alert the reader to a more sceptical and enquiring view. Her reflections on stellar astronomy are one such, clearly echoing William Herschel. She quietly suggests that ‘not only man, but the globe he inhabits-nay the whole system of which it forms so small a part-might be annihilated, and its extinction be unperceived in the immensity of creation’.61 The reader is left to ask-Unperceived by God? Or without any God to perceive it?

Again, the question of the traditional Biblical age of the earth is gently passed over with the observation that geologists (notably Lyell) were now regularly producing ‘traces of extreme antiquity’, which contradicted the idea of any special creation, and simply made the formation of the earth ‘contemporaneous with that of the rest of the planets’. Presumably this was because the Creator made no difference between ‘one day and a thousand years’.62

In one remarkable passage, entitled ‘Errors of the Senses’, Somerville confronts the counter-intuitive nature of science. She even seems to suggest that science underwrites philosophical scepticism, by suggesting that none of man’s physical perceptions is ultimately capable of yielding any objective account of the surrounding universe at all: ‘A consciousness of the fallacy of our senses is one of the most important consequences of the study of nature. This study teaches us that no object is seen by us in its true place, owing to aberration; that the colours of substances are solely the effects of the action of matter upon light; and that light itself, as well as heat and sound, are not real beings, but modes of action communicated to our perceptions by the nerves. The human frame may therefore be regarded as an elastic system, the different parts of which are capable of…vibrating in unison with any number of superposed undulations, all of which have their perfect and independent effect. Here our knowledge ends; the mysterious influence of matter on mind will in all probability be for ever hid from man.’63

Again, the coming crisis in Victorian religious beliefs, a new kind of wonder born out of radical doubt, seems obscurely glimpsed in such passages. Nonetheless, the book was respectfully reviewed by the highly orthodox William Whewell, and went into numerous editions. It was notable because it was written by a woman, but not particularly addressed to women readers-let alone children. This pointed up the paradox that women were not yet accepted as equals by the male scientific community, although in the crucial field of interpretation and explanation to a general public, they were already the pioneers.

The first official woman member of the BAAS was not accepted until 1853, though this was not entirely through want of trying. Charles Babbage wrote archly, before the Oxford meeting of 1832: ‘I think that ladies ought to be admitted at some kind of assembly: remember the dark eyes and fair faces you saw at York and pray remember we absent philosophers sigh over the eloquent descriptions we have heard of their enchanting smiles…If you will only get up an evening converzazione for them at Oxford, I will try and start a ball for them at Cambridge.’64♣

In October 1834 it was a sign of the times that Coleridge’s obituary appeared in the same edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine as its first full report of the highly successful fourth BAAS meeting in Edinburgh. As many as 1,200 members attended, including 400 women, though these were still only permitted at suitably selected sessions. The geologist Professor Adam Sedgwick gave the plenary address on the future role of science, which was fully quoted in the Gentleman’s Magazine’s summary. The open seminars, embracing the main scientific disciplines (astronomy, geology, chemistry, physics, botany and statistics) lasted for a week. It was not dull, but it was becoming professional Victorian science. There were concerts, balls, steam-train rides and fireworks. David Brewster talked about his latest scientific toy, the kaleidoscope. Professor Buckland, the geologist, gave another admirable lecture on Fossil Reptiles, and called attention to God’s sense of humour in his grotesque creations: ‘He convulsed his audience with laughter…with his numerous comical hits.’65


Erasmus Darwin’s grandson, Charles Darwin, had gone up as an undergraduate to St John’s College, Cambridge, in autumn 1827. Initially he seemed bumbling and directionless, struggling to escape from the oppressive shadow of his grandfather. But he was soon inspired by his tutor, the kindly Professor of Botany, John Henslow, and began a microscopic study of pollen grains. He steadily came under the influence of the young science group based at Trinity and St John’s, was befriended by the Lancashire polymath William Whewell, and taken on a vigorous geological expedition to North Wales by the muscular Christian Adam Sedgwick (a disciple of Wordsworth’s).

‘No opinion can be heretical but that which is not true,’ declared Sedgwick stoutly at the Geological Society. ‘Conflicting falsehood we can comprehend; but truths can never war against each other. I affirm, therefore that we have nothing to fear from the results of our enquiries, provided they be followed in the laborious but secure road of honest induction.’66 Darwin would never forget that declaration as, for thirty years, he struggled with the implication of evolution by natural selection.

With Henslow he read and discussed the papers of Charles Babbage and John Herschel, becoming aware of the subtle implications of the inductive philosophy, and also of the rumbling dissatisfactions with the Royal Society. Inspired by Herschel’s Natural Philosophy, he heavily underlined a passage beginning: ‘To what, then, may we not look forward…what may we not expect from the exertions of powerful minds…building on the acquired knowledge of past generations?’67

But above all Darwin had begun to dream of a great tropical sea expedition. He studied the voyages of Bougainville, Cook and Banks, along with the Personal Narrative of Alexander von Humboldt. By April 1831, the end of his third and final year at Cambridge, he was dreaming of escape, as he confided to his sister Caroline. ‘All the while I am writing now my head is running about the Tropics; in the morning I go and gaze at Palm trees in the hothouse and come home and read von Humboldt: my enthusiasm is so great that I can hardly sit still on my chair…I never will be easy till I see the peak of Tenerife and the great Dragon tree; sandy dazzling plains, and gloomy silent forest are alternately uppermost in my mind.’68 At the age of twenty-two, and in the shining wake of Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin had departed aboard HMS Beagle in December 1831.


John Herschel’s marriage of 1829, according to his aunt Caroline’s prescription, had given him both emotional stability and independence, but did not cramp his scientific ambitions. While Margaret produced a large family, Herschel continued to plan the astronomical expedition to the southern hemisphere, now including his wife and children as an essential part of the scheme. In 1832 he turned down repeated offers of government sponsorship, determined to avoid any imperial implications of the kind that had been so fatal to Mungo Park’s second expedition.

He also briskly rejected a proposal from the Royal Society to underwrite part of his expenses. He wished to make himself ‘responsible to no one for the results of my expedition’, and to retain ‘the unconditional power of prosecuting it or abandoning it at any moment that it may suit my caprice’. He would not even consider sailing in a Royal Navy ship, except in the unlikely event of a declaration of war with another maritime power. ‘But on the other hand, in that event, the King’s ships would have other fish to fry than landing stargazers at the world’s end.’69

Like Banks before him, John Herschel had the freedom of action that belonged to a wealthy man. He had inherited £25,000 under his father’s Will ten years before, and further lands and property were now left him by his mother, Lady Herschel, on her death in 1832.70 So he confidently committed all his own resources to the project. After considering the peripatetic possibilities of South America, with thoughts of Banks and Humboldt in mind, he finally decided to set up a full-scale observatory and scientific station in South Africa.

On 13 November 1833 John and his family left Portsmouth for passage to Cape Town. The dismantled twenty-foot telescope was put aboard in a series of padded packing cases, and his declared intention was a major astronomical expedition to observe and map all the stars of the southern hemisphere, just as his father Sir William had done for the northern. Perhaps it was no coincidence that this was the very scheme that Sir Joseph Banks had been dreaming about in the last months before his death.

The Herschels remained at Cape Town for four years, mapping and cataloguing the stars and nebulae, and botanising in the hills above Cape Town. Their packed notebooks show a ceaseless family activity: daily meteorological observations, zoological and botanical notes, and hundreds of beautiful plant drawings made, with infinite care, using a camera lucida.71 Throughout this time their correspondence with Caroline was never discontinued, and John confided to her that these were the happiest years of his whole life. The young and vivacious Lady Herschel also wrote frequently to her ‘aunt’. She acted as hostess to numerous scientific visitors, and often proudly recalled her father-in-law Sir William Herschel, and ‘his tough little German sister’.72

One of their most notable visitors was young Charles Darwin, on his way back from the Galapagos islands in June 1836. He wrote to his sister as the Beagle docked at the Cape of Good Hope: ‘I have heard so much about [Herschel’s] eccentric but very amiable manners, that I have a high curiosity to see the Great Man.’73 He was not disappointed. Always on the lookout for fine specimens, Darwin tracked Sir John to his ‘most retired charming situation’ six miles up country from the main settlement, in a remote clearing surrounded by fir and oak trees, with the twenty-foot installed like some heathen totem pole at the centre.

Herschel himself was never still, an intense, animated figure obsessively bustling about with innumerable projects and observations-in fact just like his father. He appeared ‘to find time for everything’, even collecting rare Cape bulbs and carpentering bits of furniture. Darwin, who always valued a tranquil and ruminative lifestyle, initially found Herschel’s ceaseless activity intimidating and ‘rather awful’. But gradually he saw that the Great Man was ‘exceedingly good natured’, that his wife Lady Herschel was kindness itself, and that the whole Cape project was truly astonishing. He counted this meeting with Sir J. at this early moment in his career ‘a memorable piece of good fortune’.74

Herschel’s expedition to the Cape came to represent for Darwin the important ideal of the independent working scientist, which inspired the rest of his life. On his return to London, his friend Charles Lyell wrote to Darwin: ‘Don’t accept any official scientific place, if you can avoid it, and tell no one that I gave you this advice…My question is, whether the time annihilated by learned bodies is balanced by the good they do? Fancy exchanging Herschel at the Cape for Herschel as President of the Royal Society-which he so narrowly escaped being!…Work exclusively for yourself and for science…Do not prematurely incur the honour or penalty of official dignities.’75


Several times Caroline Herschel-by then in her eighties-imagined sailing out to join John’s family with her seven-foot telescope, hoping she might ‘shake off some 30 years from my shoulders that I might accompany you on your voyage’. It would be like reviving the old days with her brother at Bath. Her sense of frustration expressed itself in a deliberate, comic return to the broken English of her first years in England. ‘Ja! If I was 30 or 40 years junger and could go too? In Gottes namen!76

Caroline did discover, however, a startling new skill in the art of public relations. She learned to feed the local Hanover newspapers with scientific tales from the Cape, in such a way that they were soon being picked up by the international press. Thus Herschel’s work had a following right across Europe. Perhaps she had learned the importance of good publicity from her old friend Sir Joseph Banks in Soho Square. One of her earliest coups appeared in The Times for 27 June 1834.

The Hamburg Correspondent…has the following from Hanover. The friends of astronomy will be pleased to learn that Sir John Herschel has written from the Cape of Good Hope to his aunt, Miss Caroline Herschel, resident here. He has already fixed his Astronomical instruments, especially his 20 foot telescope, and ere now has begun his observations…He resides in the country, about five miles from Cape-Town, near the Table Mountain, in an enchanting valley; lofty trees, rare and beautiful shrubs and flowering plants surround his dwelling; his eye gazes upon clear and cloudless skies, studded with those innumerable stars that are the objects of his elevated pursuits. He is sanguine in his hopes of making important discoveries.77

Sometimes these news stories moved slightly beyond Caroline’s control. The following year, on 25 August 1835, the New York Sun ran a huge splash scoop that Sir John Herschel had finally proved one of his father’s most daring astronomical speculations to be true. Herschel had discovered life on the moon! The highly dramatic story held the front page of the newspaper for four days, doubled its circulation, and set off a frenzy of excitement from the east coast to the west. Each day the New York Sun gave more and more details of Herschel’s observations: mighty forests growing in the lunar craters, strange plants, fishes, beaver-like animals (all enormous because of the low lunar gravity), and finally, small apelike creatures with highly intelligent faces and convenient bat-like wings, flitting through the tenuous lunar atmosphere.78

Before the Great Moon Discovery story was blown, a mid-West preacher was collecting subscriptions to send a crate of Bibles to the poor benighted lunar men, and Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore was considering the possibilities of a whole new genre of fiction: the science fiction hoax (he would launch it with a vivid-but entirely fictitious-account of the first balloon crossing of the Atlantic the following year).79 Herschel privately dismissed the whole affair as ‘incoherent ravings’, and calmly refuted it in an Olympian open letter to the Parisian astronomer François Arago, published in the Athenaeum.80

But Margaret Herschel was more amused. She called the story ‘a very clever piece of imagination’, and wrote appreciatively to Caroline. ‘The whole description is so well clenched with minute details of workmanship…that the New Yorkists were not to be blamed for actually believing it as they did for 48 hours.-It is only a pity that it is not true: but if grandsons stride on as grandfathers have done, as wonderful things may yet be accomplished.81

John Herschel’s time in South Africa, as significant in its own way as Charles Darwin’s Beagle voyage, confirmed him as the greatest astronomer and general scientist of his generation. On his return to England in May 1838 he was made a baronet in time to attend Queen Victoria’s coronation in Westminster Abbey. Sir John Herschel was elected President of the Royal Society, awarded a second Copley Medal, and by the 1850s was recognised as the leading public scientist of mid-Victorian England. His kindly face, encircled by a sunlike corona of white hair, was famously photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, using a process that he himself had partly invented.


The great forty-foot was eventually dismantled at Slough on New Year’s Eve, 1840. It had become the relic of a past age, and besides, it shook dangerously and moaned as the winter wind blew through its ancient timbers and rigging, like a ship heading out into a stormy sea.

Sir John Herschel did not forget all the hopes it had symbolised, the great names it had attracted, and the celebrations it had inspired. Having had the scaffolding safely removed, he laid the huge, battered old tube out on the frosty grass, and held a last party inside it, with drinks and toasts and candlelight.82

He marked its departure not with an elegant mathematical calculation, but with a boisterous chant, ‘Elegy for the Old Forty-Foot’:

In the old Telescope’s Tube we sit

And the shades of the Past around us flit!

His Requiem sing we with shout and din

While the Old Year goes out and the New comes in.

Merrily, merrily, let us all sing

And make the Old Telescope rattle and ring!

 The troubling image of a shy, reluctant, persecuted female Nature who is crudely questioned and even physically assaulted by an exclusively male Science now begins to appear. It slowly replaces the older Romantic image of a mysterious and seductive Nature, at least a goddess, who is infinitely more powerful than her merely human petitioners and questioners. The rhetoric of assault, molestation, penetration and even rape of Nature by ‘Science’ develops, though partly unconsciously, throughout the nineteenth century, and was keenly identified by twentieth-century feminist criticism. See for example Anne K. Mellor, ‘A Feminist Critique of Science’ (1988). It was also popularised, as well as vulgarised, in various other art forms, as for example in the sculpture of the fin-de-siècle French artist Louis Ernest Barrias. His pair of metre-high bronze statues, Nature Unveiling Herself Before Science (1890), one partly shrouded and the other completely nude, won the Grand Prix at the Exposition Universelle for 1905.

 Unlike Harrison’s chronometer, Herschel’s telescope or Davy’s voltaic battery, Babbage’s ‘computer’ had no immediate application that officialdom could see or even imagine, though Babbage claimed correctly that it would transform the calculations for logarithms, astronomical tables, engineering construction models, map-making and marine data. Coleridge once said that radically new poetry ‘must create the taste whereby it is appreciated’. Perhaps Babbage believed the equivalent of radically new science. See Jenny Uglow and Francis Spufford, Cultural Babbage: Technology, Time and Invention (1996).

 The identification of Joseph Fraunhofer’s lines-similar to a supermarket barcode-was the first stage towards spectography, the method by which astrophysicists would eventually analyse the chemical composition of the stars. Particular elements-e.g. hydrogen-occupy particular places in the spectrum of starlight, and can thereby be identified across enormous distances in space; in fact across the entire visible universe. The implications of spectography are beautifully explored in the ‘Barcodes in the Stars’ chapter of Richard Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow (1998), which ends with a long quotation from James Thomson’s poem ‘To the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton’ (1727).

 Goethe’s Treatise on Colour (1810), which criticised Newton’s ‘mechanical’ analysis of the rainbow spectrum, remained a totem of German Naturphilosophie, though it caused increasing irritation in empirical British scientific circles. Yet Goethe explored such suggestive ideas as ‘the sensory-moral effects of colour’, the ‘spiral tendency in vegetation’, and the effect of weather (clouds, sunlight, changing barometric pressure) on mental states and moods. Goethe was wonderfully perceptive about what he insisted was the unity of the scientific and artistic sensibility. He wrote an outstanding short essay on the delicate balance between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ observation of data: ‘Empirical Observation and Science’ (1798). ‘The observer never sees the pure phenomenon with his own eyes; rather, much depends on his mood, the state of his senses, the light, the air, the weather, the physical object, how it is handled, and a thousand other circumstances.’ See Goethe, Collected Works, vol 12: Scientific Studies (1988). Humboldt also praised him: ‘Goethe, whom the great creations of the poetic Fancy have not prevented from penetrating the arcana of Nature’ (Berlin Academy conference, 1828).

 There was a premonition in an anonymous ‘evolutionary’ book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which caused a sensation in 1844. But Darwin had worked by John Herschel’s rules of pure induction: assembling a mass of precise data (e.g. the evolution of finches’ beaks) until the simplest and most convincing hypothesis emerged. Consequently the great mainstay of so many scientists-Natural Theology and the Argument by Design-was worse than untrue: it was unnecessary. The spiritual upheavals this caused devout Victorian scientists were famously described by Edmund Gosse in Father and Son (1908). But it was the earlier, preliminary impact of geology, on ordinary thinking men and women, which was recorded by Tennyson in several sections (56 and 102) of In Memoriam (1833-50). The subject and inspiration of this poem was his Cambridge friend Arthur Hallam, who died in exactly this year of the third BAAS meeting.

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.

From scarped cliff and quarried stone

She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:

I care for nothing, all shall go…’

           (In Memoriam, Section 56)

 Entire books have been dedicated to following through the minatory influence of Frankenstein’s Creature over the last 190 years, especially through films and popular journalism. We may expect a minor earthquake on the bicentenary of publication in 2018. Suffice it to note here that the current discussion of GM crops-undoubtedly vital to sustain global harvests and reduce dependency on crop-spraying-often refers to them as ‘Frankenstein foods’ (for example, the leading article from Country Life, April 2008); and that the Guardian’s excellent column ‘Bad Science’ has an image of Frankenstein’s Monster as its logo.

 The romantic tale of Paulina Jermyn, the beautiful seventeen-year-old botanist who fell in love at the 1832 British Association meeting at Oxford, perhaps deserves wider currency. See David Wooster, Paula Trevelyan (1879).

 This benign and eccentric image defined the Victorian ideal of the scientist, just as the later faintly surreal images of Albert Einstein-riding a bicycle or putting his tongue out-defined the twentieth-century one. The current images of Stephen Hawking, brilliant but paralysed and gargoyle-like in his wheelchair, perhaps better express the uncertainty of contemporary attitudes to science. The wheelchair itself takes us back to Dr Strangelove, but also eventually returns us to Sir Joseph Banks, rolling briskly into one of his scientific breakfasts in Soho Square, keen to meet his next young protégé and launch a new project ‘for the Benefit of all mankind’.

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