By Charles Matthews

Sunday, October 3, 2010

10. The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, pp. 265-295

The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (Vintage)Davy on the Gas, 5-10
Robert Southey became one of Davy's most influential friends in his Bristol years, encouraging him to continue writing poetry and eventually introducing him to a greater poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose indulgence in opium naturally led him to want to try nitrous oxide. Coleridge and Davy met in October 1799 and became great friends a month later when Davy visited Coleridge in London. Coleridge introduced David to Charles and Mary Lamb, with whom the poet was living, and to William Godwin, among other prominent literary and artistic figures. Coleridge proclaimed that science, "being necessarily performed with the passion of Hope ... was poetical." Davy enthusiastically agreed.

Davy's experiments with nitrous oxide continued in a portable gas chamber designed by James Watt. It was airtight and allowed for a much longer exposure to the gas. As usual, Davy tried it on himself first: His "pulse rose to 124, his temperature to 106, and his cheeks went bright purple." His assistant, Robert Kinglake, stood by to record Davy's reactions when he emerged from the device, but Davy also recorded the experience in his laboratory notebook, saying that he had been "almost completely intoxicated," that it had been "Inconceivably pleasurable," and the he had "seemed to be a sublime being, newly created and superior to other mortals." He also proclaimed, as Kinglake recorded, "Nothing exists, but Thoughts! -- the Universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!" He also experimented with combining nitrous oxide with alcohol, drinking a whole bottle of wine along with inhaling the gas. The chief effect was that he got sick but had no hangover the next morning when his "appetite was almost canine." But he began to wonder if the experiments were going a little too far.

In 1800, he published his first book, Researches Chemical and Philosophical chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide or Dephlogisticated Nitrous Air, and its Respiration. The publisher was Joseph Johnson, a radical who had also published Godwin, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Mary Wollstonecraft. In the book he reported on his experiments with live animals, which would later cause Davy some uneasiness, though none of the scientists who reviewed the book objected to this kind of research. In the preface to the book, Davy expressed some concern about his own methodology:
I have endeavoured to guard against sources of error; but I cannot flatter myself that I have altogether avoided them.... Early experience has taught me the folly of hasty generalization. We are ignorant of the laws of corpuscular motion.... Chemistry in its present state, is simply a partial history of phenomena, consisting of many series more or less extensive of accurately connected facts.
In addition to Davy's own self-criticism, there were also attacks on the nitrous oxide experiments from outside, including hints "that the Bristol laboratory witnessed scenes of intoxication, hysteria and even sexual debauchery." An anonymous pamphlet, The Sceptic, in 1800 attacked Beddoes and Davy in particular, suggesting that they used the experiments to seduce women and had even made one woman pregnant while she was under the influence of nitrous oxide.

Davy was himself beginning to doubt Beddoes's theories about the efficacy of inhaling gas, and his interests began to shift to galvanism and the new battery invented by Allesandro Volta. He communicated this interest in a letter to Coleridge, who was developing his ideas about the relationship of science and poetry. Coleridge urged Davy to move to the Lake District with him and Wordsworth, and to establish a laboratory there. For his part, Davy continued to write poetry, some of it about Anna Beddoes, though he never published any of the poems he wrote after 1800, confining them to his notebooks. He did, however, continue to compare the scientific and the poetic imagination in his lectures, and wrote in 1807 some words that suggest the ideas also expressed by Coleridge and Keats:
The perception of truth is almost as simple a feeling as the perception of beauty; and the genius of Newton, of Shakespeare, of Michael Angelo, and of Handel, are not very remote in character from each other. Imagination, as well as the reason, is necessary to perfection in the philosophic mind. A rapidity of combination, a power of perceiving analogies, and of comparing them by facts, is the creative source of discovery. Discrimination and delicacy of sensation, so important in physical research, are other words for taste; and love of nature is the same passion, as the love of the magnificent, the sublime, and the beautiful. 
Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783
Davy had begun to attract attention in London, which he visited again in 1801. Banks introduced him to Benjamin Thompson, a Fellow of the Royal Society who had been born in America but fought for the Loyalists and was knighted by George III. In 1785 he moved to Bavaria, where he lived for eleven years and was given the title of Count Rumford by the Elector of Bavaria.

Davy's eagerness to move on from his work with Beddoes in Bristol may have been heightened by his involvement with Anna Beddoes. She was unhappy in her marriage, and he became a confidant in her miseries. They began writing poem to each other, expressing not only affection but also a deep discomfort with the impossibility of furthering their relationship, although hers are more demonstrative than his. The extent of what Holmes calls "this flirtation or frustrated love affair (or whatever it was)" remains unclear. After Davy left Bristol, Anna gave birth to a daughter, Anna Maria, in the spring of 1802, and shortly after that ran off with Davies Giddy, Davy's old friend and patron from Penzance. She returned to Beddoes after several months' absence.

After eighteen months of work with nitrous oxide, Davy finally told Beddoes that he no longer believed there were therapeutic uses for the gas. Unfortunately, Davy had overlooked the fact that nitrous oxide had real potential as an anesthetic. It's not that he was unaware of the fact that it blotted out pain: He had treated his own toothache, caused by impacted wisdom teeth, with nitrous oxide, but "he did not take the next logical step of having the offending teeth removed while under the influence of nitrous oxide." He did note in writing up his experiments that nitrous oxide might be used to ease pain in surgery where there was no great blood loss -- because he believed that the gas was absorbed only through the bloodstream, he thought it would be ineffective if there was a lot of hemorrhaging. He had discussed the problem of pain with Coleridge, who had wondered why childbirth was so painful for human beings since it was essential for the continuation of the species, but again overlooked the potential use of nitrous oxide during labor. Holmes comments, "It would seem that Davy missed the greatest medical opportunity of his early career." It would be more than forty years before surgical anesthesia, using ether, was attempted, and it wasn't finally accepted "until Queen Victoria admitted to having taken a whiff of chloroform during the birth of her son Prince Leopold in April 1853."

Davy left Bristol in March 1801 to become assistant lecturer in chemistry and director of the chemical laboratory at the Royal Institution in London. The Institution, which was founded by Count Rumford, was only two years old and hadn't attracted much notice yet. But Davy's inaugural lecture on April 25 was a sensation: He was a natural educator and showman, as well as a popularizer of science, and the press raved about his presentation, noting also his effect on the many "completely spellbound" young women in the audience. He also published his first paper, on a new form of voltaic battery, in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions later that year.

After Davy's departure, Beddoes turned the Pneumatic Institute into a charitable clinic and gave up research. Anna left him for Davies Giddy twice, in 1804 and 1806. Beddoes's protégé continued to attract audiences -- and young women -- to his lectures. Coleridge wrote, "I attended Davy's lectures to enlarge my stock of metaphors.... Every subject in Davy's mind has the principle of Vitality. Living thoughts spring up like Turf under his feet."

In his "Discourse Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry," Davy proclaimed chemistry's central role in the advancement of science, arguing that all the other sciences, from biology to astronomy, were based on a knowledge of chemical processes. For Davy, science was the only way out of ignorance and superstition, making humankind the master of its fate. But while his argument was revolutionary, Davy was careful not to antagonize the defenders of the established order, the wealthy men who supported the institution for which he worked. He argued that "we do not ... amuse ourselves with brilliant, though delusive dreams of the infinite improveability of man.... We consider only a state of human  progression arising out of its present condition. We look for a time that we may reasonably expect, for a bright day of which we already behold the dawn."

Coleridge was much influenced by Davy's view of science as "psychologically, even spiritually, therapeutic," as Holmes puts it. And Davy's explanation of the "carbon cycle" contributed to Coleridge's idea of harmony in nature. When he and Wordsworth wrote the preface to the third edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1802, they made explicit the analogy of scientific discovery to the poetic imagination.

Davy's success boosted support for the Institution, and apparently boosted his self-confidence. When Maria Edgeworth visited London with Anna Beddoes, Davy showed them around the Institution; Edgeworth commented that Davy "was much improved since I saw him last -- talking sound sense and has left off being the 'cosmology' man." His popularity with women was particularly noted by the caricaturists Rowlandson and Gillray. He was promoted from assistant to full lecturer in 1802, the following year to professor of chemistry. In 1804 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and his salary had quadrupled, to £400, in just three years. He was invited to give summer lectures at universities, including Dublin, tripling his income.

He was shaken, however, by the death from consumption of his friend Gregory Watt in 1804, and wrote to a frend, "We know very little; but, in my opinion, we know enough to hope for the immortality, the individual immortality of the better part of man." This hope is a far cry from the "certainty of the resurrection" proclaimed by the church's creed. And in the same letter he speculated, "We are masters of the earth, but perhaps we are the slaves of some great and unknown beings," which Holmes observes is "more like the extraterrestrial intelligences of science fiction" than like God, or gods.

In 1805 he lectured at the Royal Institution on geology and spent a summer in the Lake District with Wordsworth, Southey, and Walter Scott -- Coleridge was in Italy. He returned to London to receive the Copley Medal for work on agricultural chemistry. He still had no significant discovery to attach his name to, but "There seemed nothing that could now stop his career, and his meteoric rise to fame at the age of twenty-six."

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