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When Science & Poetry Were Friends

This is the patent-age of new
For killing bodies, and for
saving souls,
All propagated with the best
Sir Humphrey Davy’s lantern,
by which coals
Are safely mined for in the mode
he mentions,
Timbuktoo travels, voyages to
the Poles,
Are always to benefit mankind,
as true,
Perhaps, as shooting them at

The question that Byron raised, whether scientific advances and inventions truly benefit mankind, was answered dramatically in the negative by Victor Frankenstein, one of the most durable creations of the Age of Wonder. Mary Shelley, wife of the poet, was nineteen years old in 1817 when she wrote her novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. In the same year, her husband was frequently visiting the physician William Lawrence, both as a patient and a close friend. Lawrence wrote a popular book, Lectures on the Natural History of Man, a scientific account of human anatomy and physiology, based on recent discoveries by surgeons in dissecting rooms. Lawrence fiercely attacked the doctrine of vitalism that was then fashionable. According to the vitalists, there exists a Life Force that animates living creatures and makes them fundamentally different from dead matter. Lawrence was a materialist, and believed in no such force. Holmes discusses the question whether Mary’s idea for her novel arose from the intellectual battle between vitalists and materialists, or from the actual attempts of the notorious charlatans Aldini in England and Ritter in Germany to revive dead animals with electric currents. Aldini had on one occasion publicly attempted to revive the corpse of a human murderer.

The novel portrays Frankenstein creating his monster silently by candlelight, using the delicate dissecting tools of a surgeon, and portrays the monster as an articulate philosopher lamenting his loneliness in poignantly poetic language. Six years later, the novel was turned into a play, Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein, which was a big success in London, Bristol, Paris, and New York. The play turned Mary Shelley’s intellectual drama upside-down. It became a combination of horror story with black comedy, and that is the way it has remained ever since, on the stage and in the movies. In the play, the monster is created by zapping dead flesh with sparks from a huge electrical machine, and the creature emerges as a dumb and misshapen caricature of a human, the epitome of brutal malevolence. And then comes a surprise. Mary Shelley went to see the play and loved it. She wrote in a letter to a friend:

Lo and behold! I found myself famous!… Mr. Cooke played the “blank’s” part extremely well…all he does was well imagined and executed…it appears to excite a breathless excitement in the audience…in the early performances all the ladies fainted and hubbub ensued!

She called the monster “blank” because its name was left blank in the theater program. She was seduced by the magic of show business in 1823, just as young writers are seduced by the magic of show business today.

In 1831 Mary Shelley wrote a preface for a new edition of the novel. The preface describes her memories of the genesis of her masterpiece fourteen years earlier:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the Thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful Engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

Her memories were closer to the play than to the novel. In Mary’s original conception, the monster was a character capable of happiness and unselfish love, who turned to evil only when Frankenstein refused to create a female partner for it to love and cherish. But on the stage and ever afterward, it became pure evil, an unmitigated disaster. Science became not merely ethically ambiguous but an agent of doom.

The Age of Wonder, according to Holmes, ended with the first meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in York in 1831. By that time the three giants, Joseph Banks, William Herschel, and Humphry Davy, had grown old and feeble and finally died. The three young leaders who took their places were the mathematician Charles Babbage, the astronomer John Herschel, and the physicist David Brewster. Babbage led the attack on the old regime in 1830 with a book, Reflections on the Decline of Science in England. He attacked the dignitaries of the Royal Society in London as a group of idle and incompetent snobs, out of touch with the modern world of science and industry. The professional scientists of France and Germany were leaving the English amateurs far behind. England needed a new organization of scientists, based in the growing industrial cities of the north rather than in London, run by active professionals rather than by gentleman amateurs. The BAAS was set up according to Babbage’s specifications, with annual meetings held in various provincial cities but never in London. Membership grew rapidly. At the third meeting in Cambridge in 1833, the word “scientist” was used for the first time instead of “natural philosopher,” to emphasize the break with the past. Victoria was not yet queen, but the Victorian Age had begun.

Holmes’s history of the Age of Wonder raises an intriguing question about the present age. Is it possible that we are now entering a new Romantic Age, extending over the first half of the twenty-first century, with the technological billionaires of today playing roles similar to the enlightened aristocrats of the eighteenth century? It is too soon now to answer this question, but it is not too soon to begin examining the evidence. The evidence for a new Age of Wonder would be a shift backward in the culture of science, from organizations to individuals, from professionals to amateurs, from programs of research to works of art.

If the new Romantic Age is real, it will be centered on biology and computers, as the old one was centered on chemistry and poetry. Candidates for leadership of the modern Romantic Age are the biology wizards Kary Mullis, Dean Kamen, and Craig Venter, and the computer wizards Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Charles Simonyi. Craig Venter is the entrepreneur who taught the world how to read genomes fast; Kary Mullis is the surfer who taught the world how to multiply genomes fast; Dean Kamen is the medical engineer who taught the world how to make artificial hands that really work.

Each achievement of our modern pioneers resonates with echoes from the past. Venter sailed around the world on his yacht collecting genomes of microbes from the ocean and sequencing them wholesale, like Banks who sailed around the world collecting plants. Mullis invented the polymerase chain reaction, which allows biologists to multiply a single molecule of DNA into a bucketful of identical molecules within a few hours, and after that spent most of his time surfing the beaches of California, like Davy who invented the miners’ lamp and after that spent much of his time fly-fishing along the rivers of Scotland.

Dean Kamen builds linkages between living human brains and mechanical fingers and thumbs, like Victor Frankenstein, who sewed dead brains and hands together and brought them to life. Page and Brin built the giant Google search engine that reaches out to the furthest limits of human knowledge, like William Herschel, who built his giant forty-foot telescope to reach out to the limits of the universe. Simonyi was chief architect of software systems for Microsoft and later flew twice as a cosmonaut on the International Space Station, like the intrepid aeronauts Blanchard and Jeffries, who made the first aerial voyage from England to France by balloon in 1795.

There are obvious differences between the modern age and the Age of Wonder. Now we have a standing army of many thousands of professional scientists. Then we had only a handful. Now science has become an organized professional activity with big budgets and big payrolls. Then science was a mixture of private hobbies and public entertainments. In spite of the differences, there are many similarities. Holmes remarks that in 1812 “Portable Chemical Chests” began to go on sale in Piccadilly, priced between six and twenty guineas. These contained equipment and materials for serious amateur chemists.

Their existence proves that some of the fashionable ladies and gentlemen who swarmed to Davy’s public lectures at the Royal Institution either did real chemical experiments in their homes or encouraged their children to do such experiments. Last year I received as a Christmas present a “Portable Genome Chest,” a compact disc containing a substantial amount of information about my genome. My children and grandchildren, and our spouses, got their compact discs too. By comparing our genomes, we can measure quantitatively how much each grandchild inherited from each grandparent.

The discs tell us the places where our personal DNA differs from the standard human genome by a single letter of the genetic code. Other more complicated differences, such as deletions or repetitions of a string of letters, are not included. The discs are prepared and sold by a company called 23andMe, twenty-three being the number of chromosomes in a human germ cell. The founder of the company is Anne Wojcicki, the wife of Sergey Brin.

The language of the genome is still an undeciphered script, like the Linear B script after it was discovered on ancient clay tablets in Crete. Professional archaeologists and linguists failed for fifty years to decipher Linear B. The amateur Michael Ventris succeeded where the experts had failed, and proved that Linear B was a pre-Homeric form of Greek. I am certainly no Ventris. I cannot decipher my own genome, or extract from it any useful information about my anatomy and physiology. But I consider it a cause for celebration that personal genetic information is now widely distributed at a price that ordinary citizens can afford. Before long, complete human genomes will also be widely available. Then we will see whether the professional experts will win the race to understand the subtle architecture of the genome, or whether some new Ventris will beat them at their own game.

An important step toward an understanding of the genome is the recent work of David Haussler and his colleagues at the University of California at Santa Cruz, published in the online edition of Nature, August 16, 2006. Haussler is a professional computer expert who switched his interest to biology. He never dissected a cadaver of mouse or human. His experimental tool is an ordinary computer, which he and his students use to make precise comparisons of genomes of different species. They discovered a small patch of DNA in the genome of vertebrates that has been strictly conserved in the genomes of chickens, mice, rats, and chimpanzees, but strongly modified in humans. The patch is called HAR1, short for Human Accelerated Region 1. It evolved hardly at all in three hundred million years from the common ancestor of chickens and mice to the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans, and then evolved rapidly in six million years from the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans to modern humans.

During the last six million years, eighteen changes became fixed in this patch of the human germ line. Some major reorganization must have occurred in the developmental program that this patch helps to regulate. Another crucial fact is known about HAR1. It is active in the developing cortex of the embryo brain during the second trimester of the mother’s pregnancy, the time when the detailed structure of the brain is organized. Haussman’s team found another similar patch of DNA in the vertebrate genome which they call HAR2. It is active in the developing wrist of the human embryo hand. The brain and the hand are the two organs that most sharply differentiate humans from our vertebrate cousins.

The discovery of HAR1 and HAR2 is probably an event of seminal importance, comparable with the discovery of the nucleus of the atom by Ernest Rutherford in 1909 or the discovery of the double helix in the nucleus of the cell by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953. It opens the door to a new science, the study of human nature at the molecular level. This new science will profoundly change the possible applications of biological knowledge for good or evil. It may give us the key to control the evolution of our own species.

One feature of the old Age of Wonder is conspicuously absent in the new age. Poetry, the dominant art form in many human cultures from Homer to Byron, no longer dominates. No modern poet has the stature of Coleridge or Shelley. Poetry has in part been replaced in the popular culture by graphic art. Last year I took part in a “Festival of Mathematics” organized in Rome by Piergiorgio Odifreddi, a mathematical entrepreneur in tune with the modern age. Odifreddi borrowed the largest auditorium in Rome, left over from the 1960 Olympic Games, and filled every seat for three days with young people celebrating mathematics. How did he do it? By mixing mathematics with art. The presiding geniuses were the late artist Maurits Escher and the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, with their followers displaying new works of art created by humans and computers. John Nash was there, enjoying the adulation of the students since the film A Beautiful Mind made him an international star. There was also a performing juggler who happens to be a professor of mathematics. He stood on the stage, simultaneously juggling five balls in the air and proving elegant theorems about the combinatorics of juggling. His theorems explain why serious jugglers always juggle with an odd number of balls, usually five or seven rather than four or six.

If the dominant science in the new Age of Wonder is biology, then the dominant art form should be the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants. This art form, using the new biotechnology creatively to enhance the ancient skills of plant and animal breeders, is still struggling to be born. It must struggle against cultural barriers as well as technical difficulties, against the myth of Frankenstein as well as the reality of genetic defects and deformities.

If this dream comes true, and the new art form emerges triumphant, then a new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet. Most of these artists would be amateurs, but they would be in close touch with science, like the poets of the earlier Age of Wonder. The new Age of Wonder might bring together wealthy entrepreneurs like Venter and Kamen, academic professionals like Haussler, and a worldwide community of gardeners and farmers and breeders, working together to make the planet beautiful as well as fertile, hospitable to hummingbirds as well as to humans.

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