July 26, 2013

Tis Friday, sacred to the goddess Fri. Some clouds and sun today.  63 degrees.

I just read a great book, The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, about the second scientific revolution in England, which took place roughly 1770-1830. It was during this time that William Herschel created telescopes far superior to any available up to that time, and then with his sister Caroline Herschel spent countless nights scanning the sky for stars, planets, comets, and nebulae. It was Herschel who discovered Uranus, which stunned the scientific world, as there had been six known planets for literally thousands of years. The book narrates the story of Herschel, an immigrant musician from Hanover, Germany, and his sister Caroline, who became well known for her own work in astronomy, including the most accurate star atlas compiled to that time. It was Caroline who regularized her brother’s observations in voluminous notebooks. This at a time, of course, when only men could be recognized for such work.

The book also relates the experience of Joseph Banks, who went with Cook to the South Seas to witness the transit of Venus (recently reenacted) from Tahiti. They arrived six weeks before the transit was expected to occur. Banks, then in his 20s, learned the local language and botanized the islands, collecting specimens that became the core of the British Museum collection. He later wrote the first anthropological study of Tahitian society. He also scandalized many by living with a Tahitian woman for the three months the British were anchored there. After witnessing the transit, Cook’s expedition continued around the world. Later Banks was knighted and for 40 years served as president of the Royal Society, the first scientific association in Britain.

The book also details the development of hot-air and hydrogen gas balloon flights, and the development of alchemy into modern chemistry through the work of Humphrey Davy, his assistant Michael Faraday, and others. This was the time when the elements first began to be identified after eons of belief that everything was made up of earth, air, fire, and water. By the 1830s 50 elements had been identified. Davy was noted in his 20s for his experimentation with laughing gas, of which he partook copiously, as did some of his literary friends, though Coleridge preferred opium. Davy invented a safe lantern for use in coal mines (where an open flame sometimes caused explosions that killed scores of miners, many of whom were boys as young as 8 years old).

Davy also tirelessly lectured about what we now recognize as the scientific method of observation, hypothesis, experimentation. William Herschel’s son John Herschel wrote the classic book about this method that went through many editions and inspired the student Charles Darwin. It was also during this period that the first electric batteries were developed and Franklin experimented with lightning. When the Italian scientist Galvani experimented with electric batteries hooked to dead animals and humans, thinking he might have discovered the secret of the life force, Mary Shelley got the idea for her classic novel about Frankenstein’s monster. At the end of the period young Darwin set out on a five-year voyage on HMS Beagle. The book is fascinating, the people are interesting, and it’s a great read.

Age of Wonder sm

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