By Charles Matthews

Friday, September 24, 2010

1. The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, pp. i-13

The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (Vintage)Prologue; Joseph Banks in Paradise, 1-3
In his introduction, Holmes refers to his book as "a relay race of scientific stories, and they link together to explore a larger historical narrative" -- that of "the second scientific revolution, which swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, and produced a new vision which has rightly been called Romantic science." The first revolution was that of Newton, Locke and Descartes; Coleridge, in 1819, was probably the first to recognize a second, "inspired primarily by a sudden series of breakthroughs in the fields of astronomy and chemistry."

This second revolution was, in Holmes's view, bracketed by two voyages of exploration: that of Capt. James Cook in 1768, and that of Charles Darwin in the Beagle in 1831. "Romantic science" gave us "the dazzling idea of the solitary scientific 'genius,'" often inspired by a "Eureka moment." It "would seek to identify such moments of singular, almost mystical vision in its own history." It would also look back to identify them in the careers of earlier scientists: e.g., Newton in his apple orchard.
There was, too, a subtle reaction against the idea of a purely mechanistic universe, the mathematical world of Newtonian physics, the hard material world of objects and impacts. These doubts, expressed especially in Germany, favoured a softer "dynamic" science of invisible powers and mysterious energies, of fluidity and transformations, of growth and organic change. This is one of the reasons that the study of electricity (and chemistry in general) became the signature science of the period, though astronomy itself, once the exemplary science of the Enlightenment, would also be changed by Romantic cosmology.
The movement was away from the elitism and specialization of seventeenth century science toward "a new commitment to explain, to educate, to communicate to a general public. Science began to be taught to children. The word "wonder" began to be associated with science and its discoveries.

The book, Holmes tells us, is centered on the astronomer William Herschel and the chemist Humphry Davy, but their stories are backdropped by that of "the botanist, diplomat and éminence grise Sir Joseph Banks, who sailed with Cook on the Endeavour.

Banks was twenty-six when, in April 1769, the Endeavour arrived in Tahiti. He was "tall and well-built, with an appealing bramble of dark curls." He recorded in his journal that Tahiti "was the truest picture of an Arcadia of which we were going to be Kings," though the Endeavour was hardly the first European ship to visit the island: the Spanish had been there in the sixteenth century and claimed it for Spain, the English ship the Dolphin had been there and claimed it for England in 1767, and Louis-Antoine de Bougainville claimed it for France the following year. "The French had racily christened Tahiti 'La Nouvelle Cythère," the New Island of Love," because the Tahitians seemed to be unfettered by European sexual morality.

The Endeavour was there to observe a transit of Venus on June 3, 1769, the last opportunity to see Venus cross the face of the sun until 1874 and thereby "to establish the solar parallax, and hence the distance of the sun from the earth." The observation was threatened when the expedition's quadrant was stolen a few nights before the event. Banks had already figured out that the Tahitians had "some quite different notions of property," and he led the team that negotiated the recovery of the quadrant, earning praise from Capt. Cook for being "always very alert upon all occasions wherein the Natives are concerned." Banks had, in Holmes's words, a "natural openness and enthusiasm, which easily won friends."

Banks had been educated at Harrow, Eton, and Christ Church, Oxford, but he preferred science to the Latin and Greek that those institutions primarily taught. At fourteen, when he was at Eton, he was returning from a swim in the Thames when he came across a "mass of wildflowers along the hedgerows vividly illuminated in the slanting, golden light." It was a characteristic Romantic epiphany that turned him in the direction of botany, and away from the Greek and Latin that his father wanted him to excel in: "it seems that to the young Banks botany implied a kind of Romantic rebellion against his father, as well as against the standard school curriculum of classics."

He became a collector of specimens and a devotee of Carl Linnaeus, "the leading Enlightenment botanist of Europe." When he got to Oxford and discovered there was "no Linnaean lecturer in botany" at the university, he rode over to Cambridge and asked their professor of botany, John Martyn, to recommend one. "He came back triumphantly with a gifted young Jewish botanist, Israel Lyons, who had agreed to teach the subject to Banks and a group of like-minded undergraduates at Oxford." He paid Lyons's salary out of his own pocket.

In 1761, Banks's father died, leaving him very wealthy at the age of eighteen. When he was twenty-two he bought passage on a seven-month expedition to Labrador and Newfoundland. "He wrote witty, faintly scurrilous letters to his sister Sophia, and also kept the first of his great journals, most notable for their racy style, appalling spelling and non-existent punctuation." In 1766, when he was twenty-three, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Two years later, he joined Cook's round-the-world expedition on the Endeavour.
It had four main objectives: first, the observing of the Transit of Venus on Tahiti; second, charting and exploring the Polynesian islands west of Cape Horn; third, exploring the landmasses known to lie between the 30th and 40th parallels -- New Zealand (possibly the tip of a continent) and Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), possibly part of Australia; and fourth, collecting botanical and zoological specimens from anywhere in the southern hemisphere. It also had a medical aim, to reduce the fatal outbreaks of shipboard scurvy by the use of sauerkraut and citrus fruits.
Banks proposed that he become the expedition's official botanist, just as William Green, the assistant to the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, was the expedition's official astronomer.

Banks was skeptical, as was Cook, about one of the expedition's secret aims: the discovery of a great southern continent of which New Zealand was thought to be the northern tip. "The Admiralty seems to have been unaware of Antarctica." Banks was also "fully aware of how little was known about the Pacific Islands in general, and of the perils of circumnavigation, especially between Tahiti and Indonesia. It had nearly destroyed Bougainville's entire crew the year before."

Encouraging Banks's participation in the expedition was James Lee, who owned the Vineyard Nurseries in Hammersmith, who advised Banks on his collection. One of Lee's assistants was Sydney Parkinson, an eighteen-year-old Quaker who accompanied Banks as a botanical artist on the Endeavour. Another of Lee's assistants was his ward, Harriet Blosset, who wanted to go on the expedition, but women were not allowed on board. Banks was fond of Harriet, but he was reluctant to marry at this stage of his career.

The typical journey for a young man of means at this time was the Grand Tour, "the object of which as Dr Johnson said was to visit the classical civilisations along the shores of the Mediterranean." When he was asked why he was taking such a perilous voyage instead, Banks replied, "Every blockhead does that; my Grand Tour shall be one round the whole Globe."

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