Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes is one of the most accomplished biographers of our time. With the publication of Shelley: The Pursuit thirty-five years ago, he began an exploration of the Romantic era that has illuminated the rich literary legacy of that age in works such as Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage (1993) and an acclaimed two-volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge: Early Visions (1989) and Coleridge: Darker Reflections (1998). His imminently readable investigations of his own mind and methods have produced two sterling volumes of autobiographical reflections on the art he practices with such aplomb: Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985) and Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer (2000). In an author statement to the British Council, he has aptly summed up his aims and his achievements: “Of course I think biography aspires to be an art, just as the novel does. It is a piece of imaginative storytelling, as well as an historical investigation. It celebrates the wonderful diversity of human nature, and its aim is enlightenment. But biography is also a vocation, a calling. The dead call to us out of the past, like owls calling out of the dark. They ask to be heard, remembered, understood.” Richard Holmes’s most recent book, The Age of Wonder, examines the lives and experiments of the scientists of the Romantic age. I spoke to him about it by telephone in mid-June. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. — James Mustich

James Mustich: Your new book, The Age of Wonder, is something of a departure for you.

Richard Holmes: You’re right.

JM: Not in terms of the period, but in terms of the scientific focus. Would you tell us what prompted you, after a full career in literary biography, to turn your attention to the science of the Romantic era.

RH: It’s a long story. I’m not quite sure where to begin. I gave a lecture at the Royal Institution, and then at the Royal Society, in 1998 or 1999 — so ten years ago. The talk was about Coleridge, whom I’d written about, and his great chemical friend, Humphry Davy. It was called “Coleridge Among the Scientists.” And I realized I’d hit a chord there: people were very, very interested in that combination of a poet and a scientist. It struck me that, although I’d spent thirty or forty years writing about the Romantic period, and paid a great deal of attention, obviously, to literary, artistic, and political matters, the science had somehow escaped me. So I thought, there’s a very big subject here that I have simply missed.

I was teaching. I was Professor of Biography at the University of East Anglia for seven years (it’s the only time I’ve held a teaching post) in order to launch a new MA course in the study of biography; that allowed me time to really do some quite deep research on the science. Plus, I had the chance to have a summer fellowship, two summers running, at Trinity College, Cambridge, which, of course, is a great science college; it’s Newton’s college. I was able to open up some archives, including the Herschel Archive, with his wonderful letters and observation journals, all of which are kept there in Cambridge. But also, every evening, when you are a Visiting Fellow, you come to dine in College, and they do it wonderfully in Trinity. It’s completely democratic. You sit at the main table, where all the dons are, but you place yourself wherever you walk in. The astonishing thing about Trinity is that it gathers Fellows and Visiting Professors from literally all around the world, and most of them are scientists. While I was there, I think there were six Nobel scientists, and I would just sit down next to them. For me, that was a wonderful piece of education, that I could talk to people right across the table, particularly the chemists and the astronomers and astrophysicists. One of the things I noticed about great scientists is that they could explain so well, so that I was given a kind of seminar every evening with whoever I had sat down next to.

I’ll give you just one specific example. One evening, I sat down next to a Russian mathematician who was a Visiting Professor there, who spoke no English. And here I am, a literary man who speaks no Russian. But I’d been studying a young French mathematician called Évariste Galois, who actually died in a duel at age 21 in Paris (very Romantic!). He had written about group theory, which is now an accepted part of mathematics. I just said his name, Évariste Galois, and my Russian mathematician’s face lit up. He reached forward to pull all the crockery and things along the table, and he began to explain — laying out the spoons and the salt cellars — what group theory is.

JM: Oh, how marvelous!

RH: Do you get that picture? That happened again and again! I was taken up to the Observatory, all kinds of things. So that was very important. And because I had this teaching post at the University of East Anglia, I had time to absorb it all.

I began to wonder how far back this scientific interest went for me. When I was originally at Cambridge, as a student, I actually went to a scientific college. I read English under George Steiner, but it was at Churchill College, which is seventy percent scientists; most of my friends in particular were astronomers and nuclear physicists. They seemed to know more of Milton’s Paradise Lost than I did, actually. Quite extraordinary.

Then — this is really a long, Coleridgean, digressive answer — I began to look back at my own childhood, and I realized that, while I more readily remembered the literary part of it (very early reading of Robert Louis Stevenson, for example — that kind of thing), I’d also had a scientific childhood. I built radios, and I flew model planes. In fact, I had an uncle who was in the Royal Air Force, whom I greatly admired, who taught me all about aeronautics. I believe I put it in the book. Once, when he was still in active service, he somehow smuggled me into his V-bomber. Can you imagine it? I note that it was not armed at the time.

And I had a chemistry set. All that kind of thing. It’s interesting how life goes; because I followed the literary path, I’d almost forgotten that I did have this quite scientific childhood, in many ways, and it all started to come back.

That’s my rather longwinded explanation for my work on The Age of Wonder, with one additional thing. It seemed to me that if you could understand it yourself and describe science well, particularly experiments and discoveries, you could turn it into a kind of detective narrative. Take when Humphry Davy invents the miner’s lamp, which is going to save hundreds and thousands of lives: if you learn how he worked in his laboratory, you can describe that like a sort of detective story, with its very thrilling outcome. That was another thing in the book which I loved doing.

JM: The book certainly has that quality throughout. But to make such a complicated chronicle read like a thrilling detective story requires a lot of hard and not very glamorous detective work, I’m sure; because The Age of Wonder, like all your books, is so gracefully composed, all the marvelous material — the vivid passages from letters and journals — that you dug up in the Herschel Archive and elsewhere flows seamlessly from chapter to chapter in a way that makes your narrative seem like simple description rather than the product of laborious research and careful, imaginative ordering. I wonder if you would talk a little bit about the nitty-gritty of your research process, of working in the archives and sensing where you have to look next, and so on.

RH: Yes, very good question. I should put as a sort of prologue to my answer that one of the things I asked myself at the outset was, “Do scientists have inner emotional lives, or are they just men and women in white coats?”

Does that sound extraordinary? But sometimes it’s easy to make the assumption that they’re rationalists who live only in a world of ideas and experimentation. I was very keen to discover the emotional lives of my subjects. They worked so intensely, all of them. A lot of them took reckless risks in their science. What effect did that have on them? How did it affect their family relationships? How did it affect things like their religious beliefs? That kind of thing. I wanted it all, and that guided me to some degree when I did the archival work. I’ll tell you about the Herschel Archive, and then the Davy.

In the Herschel Archive, it started out that the first set of letters was written in 18th-century German. I have some German, but it’s not that good. My French is fine. My Italian is not too bad, but my German is not so good. And I opened the first letter, and I thought, “Oh, no, this is going to be very, very hard — there are two or three hundred letters.” But from the moment Herschel arrives in England, everything is written in English, even the papers of his sister, Caroline — they make an absolute principle of it. That of course made it easier to discover the riches in his observation notebooks as well as his private letters, which are very interesting, and much concerned with philosophical questions and so on.

The wonderful discovery was the autobiography, based on her journal, of Caroline Herschel. It’s almost the equivalent of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal, which gives such a telling glimpse of Wordsworth’s life as a poet. In Caroline Herschel’s case, it’s a daily journal that she wrote up. It has a lot of science — the observations they’re doing and so on — but it is also filled with wonderful accounts of what their work was like. Do you remember the episode when they’re polishing the metal mirrors?

JM: Yes.

RH: The reflective mirrors. Because Herschel constructs all his own telescopes. Nobody had built telescopes like this before — reflector telescopes. They had to polish the mirrors; it took hours and hours, and they couldn’t stop, because the metal hardens over if you do. There’s a famous scene where William Herschel polishes for sixteen hours without stopping, and Caroline is feeding him — literally putting the food into his mouth — and reading from the Arabian Nights. What’s important, of course, is what he’s doing, polishing these extraordinary concave lenses. But there’s so much human drama in that scene and in what it says about their relationship. That’s just a tiny example.

I have to say that I felt that many scientists who had looked at the archives before overlooked that human aspect, but to me it was all part of the story, and it expressed their passion. I mean, the way they worked together at night, night after night, these long, long nights, particularly in the winter! The amazing sets of clothes they wore, layers and layers of clothes, and how they rubbed their faces and hands with raw onions to keep out the cold. The hard work of it, and yet the beautiful results that were being produced. All of that fascinated me.

So that’s one example of an archive. Another one would be the Davy Archive, which is in the Royal Institution. It holds a lot of wonderful little laboratory notebooks, but inside those laboratory notebooks Davy suddenly will write an essay about dreams. Or about how we think: What makes a brain work? Is it purely material? Or he’ll write a short story. Or he’ll write poetry — there’s a lot of poetry. And all that is in there, in the laboratory notebooks. Most particularly, there are various love letters: to the young woman he met as a young man in Bristol, and then later to the woman he actually married; and later still, right at the end of his career, when he was dying, there are extraordinarily moving letters relating to some kind of affair that he has with the daughter of an innkeeper up in the mountains of Austria. People had seen all this in the notebooks, and they had simply ignored it.

But that’s what brought the story to life for me. In fact, in order to understand the particular passion with which someone like Davy worked — a brilliant experimental scientist taking great risks, almost killing himself early on with the gas experiments — you need to understand his whole personality. He was quite a difficult man, I think. He had a very unhappy marriage that’s quite interesting in why it went wrong, and how much his scientific dedication was the cause. Those kinds of questions interest me very much, and I try to look at them in the book.

JM: They allow you to bridge the gap you mentioned earlier, the one created by our assumption that scientific thinking is completely divorced from other types of passionate intellectual pursuit. One of the wonderful things about The Age of Wonder is that it is animated, no less than your biographies of Coleridge and Shelley, by the energies of inspiration and creative ferment.

RH: Yes, that’s right. On the other hand, Coleridge working on his poem “Kubla Khan” is different from Davy working on nitrous oxide, even though there is the same kind of daring and commitment to it. In fact, the nitrous oxide experiments are very interesting, because there a poet and a scientist come together. Davy was then a very young man — he was 20 or 21 — working at the newly founded Pneumatic Institute at Bristol on artificial gases. For the first time, gases have been separated out, and it’s realized that common air is made up of various gases. And they had the not-illogical concept that certain gases could be used to cure things like tuberculosis — by inhaling the gases, you might heal diseased lungs. Some of the gases Davy was working with were absolutely lethal. Carbon monoxide, for instance, which he inhaled until he nearly killed himself. He actually writes an amazing note about that while he’s staggering out into the garden, which begins “I do not think I shall die.” There is this kind of reckless passion that Davy often exhibits.

One of the gases they discover and work on is nitrous oxide, now known to us as laughing gas. Davy holds a series of experiments with volunteers breathing this gas — and also breathing ordinary air, so he could get a control — to see what the effect is. Of course, he finds that it has very heady, euphoric effects, but another thing he discovers is that it has anesthetic properties. Remember, there’s no anesthesia at this period. We’re talking about 1800. There was not even a concept that you could have pain-free surgery. While it’s an extraordinary idea to us now, at that time doctors thought pain was necessary as part of the surgical process, to help the body react and heal. Think of the amputations in the Napoleonic Wars which were going on, thousands upon thousands of them; and here, young Davy had found a kind of gas that could be made in a portable machine, that could be inhaled, and that would allow you to have a pain-free operation.

Coleridge is one of the volunteers. Can you imagine? Fresh from his opium experiment, Coleridge comes and breathes Davy’s nitrous oxide? It’s both tragic and ludicrous. What happened is very, very funny . But for emotional reasons, Davy gives up this line of experiment, and goes to London, with the result that anesthesia is not discovered for another forty years — in America, in fact. Yet, four decades earlier, Davy and Coleridge are having exchanges about the nature of pain: why is the human body so subject to pain? Why is a woman’s body subject to pain in childbirth? A very interesting question, that, and, in this context, an ironic one, because nitrous oxide is now — mixed with oxygen — one of the standard anesthetic procedures used during childbirth.

So there you have a mix of pure experimental science and philosophic questioning — what is anesthesia, what is the nature of pain? That’s because a poet and a scientist are talking together about this.

What I should also note is that the poets are a very important part of this book. They are not the main figures, but they play significant roles. We have not only Coleridge, but Shelley, too. Byron, who in Don Juan writes extraordinarily well about the scientific adventures of the age (ballooning, for instance), was another friend of Humphry Davy. And there’s Keats, of course, who wrote that wonderful sonnet which describes the discovery of the seventh planet, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.”

JM: It’s wonderful to recognize through your book the contemporary resonance of Keats’s imagery in that poem. It really makes the poem much more vivid to realize that Herschel’s discovery of Uranus is happening, as it were, at the very moment Keats is composing the sonnet.

RH: Yes. It’s probably one of Keats’s first major poems; he’s very young when he writes that. The poem is about Romantic discovery, the notion of discovery, and it takes three types, really — the first being Keats’s discovery of Homer through Chapman’s translation. Suddenly this young man, an undergraduate, is confronted by the world of the Homeric epic through this wonderful translation; it’s like a new door being thrown open. He then compares it to Herschel’s discovery, although Herschel is not named: “like some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken.” That wonderful line! Keats has even caught the notion of “swimming” that seems to record the slight movement that you get in a telescope using high magnification — there’s a kind of ripple effect. So that’s the second kind of discovery, which changes our whole concept of the nature of the solar system. Then that is compared with geographical discovery — in fact, the discovery of South America and the Pacific — which of course links with Banks and the great Pacific voyages. All in one sonnet — all in one amazing sonnet!

That’s a good example of a scientific discovery nourishing poetry. There’s an irony here, too, however, in that Herschel himself, as an old man, came to believe, and wrote in his letters, that his discovery of the new planet Uranus was exactly as Keats described it: it swam into his telescope, and he saw it immediately, and knew what he was seeing; whereas I am able to show through my study of Herschel’s notebooks that actually it was quite a long process of observation that took place over several weeks. Then it took the European community of astronomers nearly a year to accept that what Herschel saw was indeed a new planet. So the rhythms of science and poetry are quite different. Yet, in the end, Herschel tells the story almost as Keats would have told it, saying he recognized it on one night — suddenly, he’d found a new planet.

This sort of thing — you might call it almost the sociology of science — interests me very much.

JM: Your book covers the period, roughly, from 1770 to 1830. It’s an age, as you say in the book, that is often seen by most people as a black hole in the history of science between Newton and Darwin.

RH: Yes.

JM: Newton’s discoveries were scientific lightning bolts that people saw very clearly. And Darwin’s theories were eventually perceived in the same way. But all the work going on in between those two bursts of illumination — work which encompassed a great deal of scientific advancement — was much more diffuse. What I mean to say is the accomplishments of the period you are studying were perhaps harder to imagine as dramatic acts of discovery, except occasionally, as by Keats in his transformation of Herschel’s painstaking and protracted labors into a single moment of revelation.

RH: That’s absolutely right. Of course, even Newton’s reputation changes in this period because of the way the poets looked at him. In the prologue, I quote Wordsworth from the Prelude, describing the statue of Newton — in Trinity, the very college where I was working — and invoking the wonderful metaphor of the journey. Do you remember?

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.

That’s very powerful, that metaphor of the voyage. We’ve already been talking about it in Keats. And it’s, of course, how the book begins — with Captain Cook and the botanist, Joseph Banks, going to the Pacific and Tahiti.

It’s difficult to know why people like Herschel, like Davy, like the explorers (Mungo Park), and the surgeons (William Lawrence, for instance, whose work inspires Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — I have a big chapter on that) — why their achievements were obscured. The literary history of the Romantic period is so powerful that somehow this had put the scientists in the shade, and I tried to reverse that by showing the astonishing scale of the changes Romantic science engendered.

Take Herschel, for example. He not only discovered a new planet, but through observation realized that we live in a galaxy, the Milky Way, and he works out the shape of it. Much more than that, he’s the first person who established the fact that there must be galaxies outside our Milky Way, at distances that had never been conceived of before; this is usually put down to Edwin Hubble, in the 1920s, but no: there are wonderful papers by Herschel describing Andromeda and the idea of families of galaxies. Towards the end of his life, he writes papers on what we think of as a completely modern idea, the idea of Deep Time. He actually says, “My telescopes look into the past. You need to understand that they are looking at light that’s taken millions of years to arrive.”

JM: He turned some deft phrases, as I recall.

RH: Yes, that’s right. He calls the nebulae the “laboratories of the universe.” And from that, he argues, again, a completely new idea: that the galaxies themselves are like plants; that they are young galaxies and then they mature, and then they grow old, and they will wither and collapse. Philosophically, this is absolutely new. In his last papers, he says that from his observation it seems clear to him that our own galaxy, the Milky Way, will eventually wither and die. That’s a radical concept, and one that upends the idea of a Genesis creation, which was still current then, and still argued about now.

JM: It’s not hard to see the discoveries of Herschel and some of the other scientists you discuss as illustrations of Thomas Kuhn’s idea of how scientific revolutions take place.

RH: That wonderful essay of Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I tried very carefully to avoid jargon about this. But it seems to me so in every field. In chemistry, for example: in Davy’s generation, for the first time, they take apart the four elements — air, water, fire, earth — and show that they are all compositions, rather than single, pure, primary elements. So if we’re talking about paradigm shifts, chemistry is certainly a good example.

Even ballooning — made possible, of course, by the new understanding of the chemistry of gases — produces an extraordinary change of outlook. For the first time, people can fly to 5,000 or 10,000 feet, and see the earth in a completely different way. They can observe the patternings of cities, and how cultivation is cutting in on the forests. They can see that political boundaries do not represent anything — they fly the Channel between England and France, and so on. You get, philosophically speaking, a complete change in attitude to the Earth, and one very related to the Romantic idea of a unified, organic nature. I argue that the idea of weather is a completely Romantic invention, because suddenly people are aware of clouds and barometric shifts. It all has to do with the balloonists exploring this new dimension of the upper air, which goes into poetry (Shelley) and painting (Turner, Constable).

JM: It also opens a whole new realm of metaphor, the idea of “inner weather” and so on.

RH: Yes.

JM: I think you quote Coleridge saying his interest in chemistry is part of his search for new metaphors, or something along those lines.

RH: That’s right. He says two wonderful things. He says he attended Humphry Davy’s chemistry lectures “to renew my stock of metaphors.” Isn’t that marvelous? He also says that science is like poetry, because it’s based on hope — the nature of science is to look forward, to hope, to improve, to reform, to progress. He said some quite funny things, too. When he’s in his first sort of rapture with chemistry, he writes a wonderful letter to Davy suggesting that they set up a chemistry laboratory together. He says, “I shall attack Chemistry, like a Shark.” Pretty memorable!

I should say that throughout the book there is a lot that is very funny. I hope you agree.

JM: I do.

RH: It seems to be part of the remarkable energy that these Romantic scientists had, that their intensity and passion can turn very, very funny. Of course, in ballooning, it’s a mixture of tragedy and comedy.

JM: The ballooning chapter is enlightening, but also marvelously entertaining. It’s so richly detailed with trial and error, so fraught with not only achievement but also, and more strangely, inspiring failure. It’s the opposite of the kind of science writing that takes a fast and steady course to an experiment’s, or a technology’s, ultimate destination. While we might think of the ballooning episodes you describe as merely a boisterous phase in the history of flight, you show us how the widening of vision they fostered was an important launching pad for later discoveries.

RH: Yes.

JM: In this context, I’d like to read a footnote that appears in one of your Herschel chapters, because I found it quite interesting. I’m quoting you here: “Michael Hoskin has suggested in his essay, ‘On Writing the History of Modern Astronomy’ (1980) that most histories of science continue to be ‘uninterrupted chronicles’, which run along, ‘handing out medals to those who “got it right”‘. They ignore the history of error, so central to the scientific process, and fail to illuminate science as a ‘creative human activity’ which involves the whole personality and has a broad social context.”

In addition to its human dimensions, what’s thrilling about your book is that by tracing errors as well as discoveries it captures the aspect of science that Hoskin refers to, its dynamic life as a “creative human activity.”

RH: I think that’s tremendously important. The history of error is such an intimate part of science, and it’s so often suppressed in ordinary, conventional science history. You just get to the result. You also ignore things that don’t look right to us now. The history of error is very rich.

Take the history of surgery in that period, which is very sobering. The almost-discovery of anesthetics — Davy’s failure to follow through on his work with gases — is a particular tragedy. Another example would be Davy’s work on the miner’s lamp. He writes a wonderful account of how he discovers the principle of the miner’s lamp, but I know from his notes, and the models of the lamp themselves, that he had several dead ends — lamps which did not work — and it’s interesting to follow that through, to say nothing of the risks he took, the explosions and other mishaps in the laboratory. These things, I think, bring the process alive.

And Herschel, the greatest astronomer of his generation: he believed to the end of his life that the sun was inhabited. Although he’d done all this brilliant observational astronomy, he was certain the sun was inhabited. He had a hunch that the moon was, too, but he had no doubt at all about the sun! That’s often suppressed in anything written about Herschel. But you need to understand that there were gaps in his knowledge, and faulty ideas that he hadn’t changed — hadn’t grown out of, in a sense. That’s very important.

I should also say that discoveries sometimes don’t contribute to scientific progress immediately. Quite often, there is a discovery whose import is not instantly apparent, because it isn’t relevant to the matter at hand. The relevance only becomes apparent over time. For instance, Herschel stumbled upon infrared rays by setting his telescope at the sun (believing the sun was inhabited) and measuring the heat that came down through the telescope; he realized that heat was produced outside the visual field — thereby discovering infrared rays. He records this in a wonderful paper that Davy reads in 1800.

This very May, a new telescope has been put into space orbit, which is called the Herschel. When it’s fully deployed, it will be bigger than the Hubble, which is getting a bit ancient. The beautiful thing about it is something no journalist has picked up. Why is it called the Herschel? Because it observes through infrared rays. I love that kind of link. Silly, isn’t it?

JM: It’s wonderful. Another thing that’s interesting in your account of Herschel is the passage in which you describe how he had to learn to see in the telescope — that the visual images were not just there to be discovered, that there was a process of refinement that his vision had to undergo in order to interpret what he saw.

RH: Yes, he writes very good letters, and finally papers, about this — learning to observe. And they’re very detailed: there are papers on how the eyes get tired; how the left and the right eye see colors slightly differently; how you get distortions. Never set up your telescope near a window, for example. Some of what he learns about observation is counterintuitive. You can observe very well through the rain, for instance, or there are certain kinds of misty conditions which are actually fine for observation.

Herschel also said not only do you have to learn to observe, but the telescopes themselves have to be tuned up to their finest pitch all the time. He compares them to musical instruments (and he was, of course, a trained musician). There is this lovely link: He hears all about these new radical ideas about the formation of the galaxies, and so on. Caroline explains how William uses his telescopes like musical instruments, how he “plays” them and “tunes” them. Haydn goes away, and six years later he writes his great oratorio, “The Creation.” It seems to be fairly well agreed now that Herschel and his observations with the great forty foot telescope actually inspired the opening of that work. The wonderful first movement of the oratorio, “Chaos,” is an evocation of the laboratories of the stars.

JM: One of the things that is striking about The Age of Wonder is the social nature of the scientific activity. Your subjects are corresponding, conversing, exchanging ideas, very much like the subjects of Jenny Uglow’s book, The Lunar Men. In focusing on a group of people, you portray a dynamism that, again, one seldom senses in a conventional history of science.

RH: Joseph Banks was often at the center of these exchanges. He is, so to speak, my chorus figure, running right through the book, beginning as a very young man, when he first goes to Tahiti, and continuing when he becomes President of the Royal Society. He was like a Minister for Science; he knew virtually everybody in my book and he sets many of them off on their researches and their inventions. His correspondence is formidable. I think there are 50,000 letters in various archives all over the world, including Australia and America as well as England. Even then, science is a kind of communication network. His letters are going out to Paris, New York, Moscow or Sydney, constantly, over forty years. You see similar exchanges, say, between Herschel and Banks as between Davy and Coleridge.

Then there are other kinds of exchanges. For example, when the young poet Shelley observes some of the balloon experiments, he is inspired to send out his poems and political pamphlets hung in baby fire balloons that he would launch himself. That’s another form of communication — a quite wonderful one.

And we shouldn’t forget the lectures. The Romantic era is the first great age of the public scientific lectures. Davy, particularly, was brilliant at that.

JM: He was so popular he was the progenitor of the one-way street, right? At least in London.

RH: That’s right. [LAUGHS] The Royal Institution was on the east side of Albemarle Street, in Mayfair. On the other side of Albemarle Street was the publishing house of John Murray, who at the time was Lord Byron’s publisher. Davy and Byron were both so popular that the carriage traffic became chaotic, so Albemarle Street was made the first one-way street in London. Being England, it’s still the same today. And both the Royal Institution and John Murray remain at the same addresses. Incidentally, Byron crossed the street and went to Davy’s lectures, and the poet and the scientist became firm friends. Davy even appears in Byron’s poem Don Juan.

But I wanted to say something about international communication as well. A lot of this period is a time of warfare. The Napoleonic Wars run roughly from 1798 right through to Waterloo in 1815, and France and England are, you know, daggers drawn. But the French and English scientists are still communicating, still writing letters. In fact, Banks manages to get some captured scientists released by making special applications to Napoleon. There’s a wonderful moment (and I think it has an edge that we appreciate now) when Davy is awarded the Prix NapolÉon in Paris, during the Napoleonic Wars. And he decides that he will go over, in wartime, to accept it, which is an extraordinary event. He does go to Paris, and he is attacked by the English newspapers for doing so. But he argues that it’s very important that science should remain an international community even in times of war. So that’s another aspect of the era’s scientific communications system.

They also wrote wonderful letters. Herschel. And his sister: Caroline Herschel’s letters are marvelous, especially those to the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne. Very, very funny. Caroline becomes a great comet hunter, discovering one comet after another, and Maskelyne writes her a marvelous letter about a new find: “I hope you don’t have an ambition to climb aboard that comet and fly around the entire solar system, because I can imagine, Miss Caroline, that you might.” A wonderful letter.

JM: Well, she is a marvelous figure in the book. Just remarkable.

RH: Caroline herself?

JM: Yes.

RH: In a sense, she’s the heroine of the book. There’s a kind of emotional tragedy at the heart of her relationship with her brother, to whom she was so close for so long. When he marries fairly late in life, she goes and lives in a workman’s cottage outside the estate, and yet she’s still working in the observatory. In the end, the rift is healed by William Herschel’s son, John, the little boy who Aunt Caroline, as she was then, was so good with and helped educate. She formed a very close friendship with him, and he grew up to become Sir John Herschel, one of the greatest of Victorian scientists. I am very interested in the kind of impact that almost obsessional scientific work has on family structures and things like that.

JM: Although I haven’t heard them yet, I was intrigued to find out that you have written a few radio plays utilizing some of the material from The Age of Wonder.

RH: Yes. It seemed to me that so much of it is dramatic, it had great potential for radio. I love radio drama — to me it’s the medium, almost more than television, of ideas. So I’ve written a series. The first one was called “The Frankenstein Experiment,” which is not as obvious as it sounds. It is about how the novel got to be written, but it’s also about a lot of the scientific experiments that were going on in London at the time, some of them quite horrific, which partly inspired that book. So that’s one.

The second one I wrote is called “A Cloud in a Paper Bag,” which is about ballooning, a subject I love. It’s comic, it’s tragic, it’s apparently a dead-end science, but of course, it isn’t really — it changes people’s ideas. And every balloon flight itself is a kind of little one-act drama. The radio play is about the great competition: will the French or the British first cross the Channel in a hydrogen balloon? Tragically, the French crew die when their balloon catches fire, and the British are the first to go across. Although I have to say, the British balloon is manned by a Frenchman and an American. [LAUGHS]

The third one, which we’ve just done this spring, is about Davy’s gas experiments, and why he didn’t pursue his discovery of anesthesia, which involves a quite complicated love affair which goes wrong in some way. That made a very good drama, particularly if you imagine the nitrous oxide experiments with Coleridge and Shelley all partaking in them — on radio! That one is called “Anesthesia.”

JM: I look forward to hearing them some day. I have just a couple more questions, if you don’t mind. Historically speaking, it seems that the poetic Muse is considered more suitable for biography than the scientific one. Put it this way: there was no Lives of the Natural Philosophers by Dr. Johnson, balancing his Lives of the Poets.

RH: Well, first of all, I think it needs saying that this, of course, has changed. One of the bees in my bonnet is I think we’re living in a marvelous age of scientific popular writing, and there are great biographies now of Newton, there are Janet Browne’s two volumes on Darwin . . .

JM: Those are marvelous books.

RH: Yes, absolutely outstanding. In addition to the biographies there is brilliant popular science being written by Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Oliver Sacks, James Gleick, and so on. We are in a great age in this regard. But what you point out is interesting; it’s one of the things I’m trying to recover a bit in The Age of Wonder. Because, as you know from the book, there are the beginnings of Romantic biographies of, for example, Newton, written in 1830, and there were even earlier ones. An extraordinary man, William Stukeley, interviewed Newton in old age and wrote the first account of Newton discovering universal gravity when the apple fell from the tree. So there is a tradition, but it’s a slightly lost tradition. In the Victorian period, it seemed to me that it was very largely a tradition of children’s literature — great scientists, great experiments and so on; that certainly flourished. There are many books about Humphry Davy discovering the miner’s lamp. Samuel Smiles, the great Victorian biographer, considered a number of engineers and scientists. But treating the subject in a way that really follows through the experimental work and rounds out the human history of science I think is relatively new — and I think it’s tremendously important. We need to understand, particularly now, how scientists work, how science works, and the way that science always will have philosophical and indeed religious and social implications. Biography can do that terribly well, I think.

JM: Last question. Have you embarked upon a new project yet?

RH: [CHUCKLES] I’ve got various ideas flying around. I’m not sure if “flying” is the key word, maybe “ballooning” would be better… But we’ll see. I’m going away to France in a minute to lie under an olive tree and think about this. I have various ideas, another radio play, some science essays, maybe even to complete the Footsteps and Sidetracks trilogy with a very personal book to be called — tentatively — Outposts, which I have been longing to write. But first the olive tree….


-June 17, 2009