By Charles Matthews

Sunday, September 26, 2010

3. The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, pp. 46-76

The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (Vintage)Joseph Banks in Paradise, 9-10; Herschel on the Moon, 1-4
Banks tried to join Cook's next Pacific expedition in the summer of 1772, enlisting such eminent figures as the chemist Joseph Priestley, the painter Johann Zoffany, and the young physician James Lind, who later taught Shelley at Eton. Cook welcomed them, and had the Resolution outfitted to accommodate them, but the Admiralty not only objected but even had the equipment that Banks had already loaded on the ship dumped on the quayside. It made it clear that it was not interested in another scientific voyage, so Banks underwrote his own, commissioning the Sir Lawrence for an expedition to the Hebrides, Fingal's Cave, and Iceland, but made no significant discoveries.

Back home, he and Solander assembled their collection into "a complete museum of Pacific culture, combining natural history with ethnology and human artefacts in a quite new way." He joined the major scientific societies in London, and became the "unofficial director" of King George's gardens at Kew. He took a mistress, Sarah Wells, whom he set up in an apartment on Chapel Street where "he would meet Solander and his other friends, give noisy dinner parties and have plenty of talk of science and adventure. This ménage seemed an extension of his Tahitian liberties." There were rumors that he and Sarah had a child together, but this is unconfirmed.

In 1774 a member of Cook's fleet returned to England with "a tall and strikingly handsome Tahitian man, who was soon to become known in England as 'Mai' or 'Omai.'" He became a celebrity in England after Banks took him in "partly as an honoured guest, and partly as an exotic specimen.... [Banks] also caused something of a scandal by absolutely refusing to teach Omai to read, or to have him instructed in any form of Christian religion."
"An imposing portrait of Omai, standing formally alongside Banks and Solander, was painted by William Parry, and displayed at the Royal Academy in 1777." 
Omai, by Joshua Reynolds
Omai returned to the South Pacific in 1777 when Cook left on his third voyage. He became a merchant, selling Western goods to the Tahitians, as well as "doing Banks's job in reverse, explaining European culture to the sceptical Tahitians, ... but [he] never fully reintegrated into Tahitian society."

Banks's open relationship with Sarah Wells "suggests that he too had been permanently affected by his Tahitian experience." He shrugged off the scandal because he "genuinely believed that British society was often cruelly restrictive toward women, although he told the author Mrs Ann Radcliffe that he thought women themselves were often responsible" because the way they treated "the smallest deviation of a Female character from the Rigid paths of Virtue is more severe than Death & more afflicting than the tortures of the Dungeon."

The news of Cook's murder by natives in Hawaii in February 1779 didn't reach England until the following year. Some of Cook's officers thought he had become too aggressive in his approach to the islanders, using "heavily armed beach landing-parties, and ... seizing native hostages upon arrival." In England Cook was celebrated as a kind of martyr, but "Cook's violent death, and Omai's strange, alienated return to Tahiti ... were premonitions of the colonial tragedy that was eventually to follow."

Somerset House in 1836
Banks never took another voyage of exploration, and after he was elected president of the Royal Society in 1778, when he was only thirty-five, he seemed to decide to settle down. In March 1779 he married a wealthy heiress, Dorothea Hugessen, after an amicable parting with Sarah Wells. "Banks settled down to a position at the heart of the British scientific establishment for the next forty-one years." He oversaw the move of the Royal Society to Somerset House on the Strand, overlooking the Thames, where it became "a palace of science." Banks was knighted in 1781 for his work on the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, which became one of the world's greatest botanical collections.

Solander's death in 1782 "fatally delayed any further work on Banks's great Endeavour travel book." In 1787, only forty-four, Banks suffered a disabling case of gout, which eventually incapacitated him, but didn't stem his enthusiasm for scientific discovery.
He revealed himself as a talent-spotter of genius, encouraging expeditions to Australia, Africa, China, and South America; supporting projects as diverse as telescope-building, ballooning, merino sheep-farming and weather forecasting; helping to found museums of botany, anthropology, comparative anatomy; and above all maintaining through a huge network of correspondence and personal meetings the idea of science as a truly shared and international endeavour, even in a time of war, and even in relentless (if well-mannered) competition with the French. 
But he never finished his own account of the Endeavour voyage, which the French naturalist Georges Cuvier referred to as "forming 'an epoch in the history of science.'"
Banks's Endeavour Voyage may count as one of the great unfinished masterpieces of Romanticism, as mysterious in its own way as Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," with which it bears some curious similarities, as an account of a sacred place which has been partly lost, and to which there is no return.... His great Endeavour voyage had launched an Age of Wonder. 

William Herschel, by Lemuel Francis Abbott, 1785
One of the talents that Banks spotted, shortly after becoming president of the Royal Society, was William Herschel. William Watson, secretary of the Royal Society, had heard from his son about an amateur astronomer in Bath whose homemade telescope had an unusually high resolution. The younger Watson had met the man, who spoke with a German accent, on a back street in Bath one night where he was observing the moon. Herschel was at that time the organist at the Bath Octagon Chapel and gave music lessons. After visiting him at his home, which was full of astronomical equipment, and meeting Herschel's sister, Caroline, who was his housekeeper and "astronomical assistant," Watson invited him to join the Bath Philosophical Society. Herschel also began submitting papers to the society, the best of which Watson forwarded on to his father at the Royal Society.

Herschel's papers were "strange ventures into speculative cosmology and the philosophy of science." In one of them, Herschel said that with his home-made telescopes he had seen "forests" on the moon, and he was convinced that the moon was inhabited. When this paper was published in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions in 1780, the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, was outraged, having demonstrated in his own writings that the moon had no atmosphere capable of supporting life. Maskelyne wrote to Watson in Bath challenging Herschel's assertions.

Watson advised Herschel to revise his findings in the light of Maskelyne's criticisms, and Herschel wrote to the Astronomer Royal saying that he had shown "a certain Enthusiasm" in his paper that was the result of his being "young in the Science of Astronomy." But he stuck to his belief that "the moon was 'beyond doubt' inhabited by life 'of some sort or other.'" And he made the teasing suggestion "Perhaps -- and not unlikely -- the Moon is the planet and the Earth the satellite" and expressed the sentiment, "For my part, were I to choose between the Earth and the Moon, I should not hesitate a moment to fix upon the Moon for my habitation!" Maskelyne paid a visit to Herschel in Bath, and, although "the visit seems to have been somewhat stormy," he was impressed by Herschel's home-made telescopes. He also met Caroline, who recorded the visit in her journal, including her brother's exclamation, when Maskelyne left, "That is a devil of a fellow!"

Maskelyne's conclusion was that Herschel and his sister "were provincials, émigrés, and poor self-taught enthusiasts" who were unlikely to contribute anything of potential significance to astronomy. "Less than a year later, in March 1781, Banks was amazed to hear that William Herschel was about to revolutionise the entire world of Western astronomy.... Herschel had discovered what was perhaps a new planet." The Herschels' observations "would change not only the public conception of the solar system, but of the whole Milky Way galaxy and the structure and meaning of the universe itself." 

Herschel was born in Hanover in 1738, and his sister Caroline was twelve years younger. He was in his thirties before he began to devote himself to astronomy. His father, Isaac Herschel, was a musician, a military bandsman with the Hanover Foot Guards. Because the king of England was also Elector of Hanover, the Hanoverian military was integral to the British military. Isaac and his wife, Anna, had ten children, but only six survived infancy. Anna Herschel favored her first-born, Jacob, and her eldest daughter, Sophie. "With the remaining children she was more severe, especially with her youngest and least promising daughter, Caroline."

At fourteen, William joined the Hanover regimental band to which his father and Jacob already belonged. He mastered instruments ranging from the oboe to the organ, and also turned to composing. (Some of Herschel's musical compositions are available on recordings.) He was also interested in philosophy, and Caroline remembered heated arguments between the brothers on philosophical questions. In the spring of 1756, the Hanover Foot Guards were sent to England at the outbreak of the Seven Years War, and Isaac, Jacob, and William went with them. "William fell in love with the country, began to learn the language, and made a small circle of English friends." They returned in December 1756 to fight the French, and though Jacob obtained a discharge from the army, Isaac and William fought in the battle of Hastenbeck in July 1757. The family decided to get William out of harm's way, too, and he and Jacob went to England. They supported themselves by giving music lessons and as freelance musicians, but in 1759 Jacob decided to return to Hanover.

William, now twenty-one, was alone in England. His father had been taken prisoner, making the spoiled and bullying Jacob head of the household, to Caroline's distress. When Isaac was released in 1760, his health had been ruined and he let Anna and Jacob run things, though he did manage to obtain for the AWOL William a formal discharge from the army in 1762. Caroline was in poor health, having come down with smallpox when she was five and typhus when she was eleven. Her growth had been stunted -- she was only about five feet tall -- and her face had been scarred by the smallpox. Considered unmarriageable, she became the family housekeeper and maidservant. She was delighted, then, when William, the only member of the family who had ever treated her well, returned to Hanover in the summer of 1764.

William had supported himself as a musician and music teacher in the north of England, while pursuing his literary, mechanical, and philosophical interests as well. He wrote fluently in French as well as German and English. His speculations on the nature of God had led him to describe the deity "memorably, in German, as 'the unknowable, must-exist Being.' With this formula he was able to set aside, for the time being at least, the problem of a personal Creator." He also composed an oratorio based on Paradise Lost, the score of which has been lost.

He had begun reading widely in astronomy, too, and "began to be preoccupied with various cosmological problems: what was the relation between music, mathematics and star patterns? Was there life on the moon? What was the structure and composition of the sun? How far away were the nearest stars? What was the true size and shape of the Milky Way?" He was "a tall, commanding figure, with a high, intellectual forehead, and very striking dark eyes." He made friends easily, and when he met the philosopher David Hume by accident, Hume invited him to dinner.

William's return to Hanover was brief, only two weeks, and he left on the day of Caroline's first communion, so she didn't even get to see him off. He stayed away for eight more years, and didn't return for his father's funeral in 1767.

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