Science Musuem, London/Bridgeman Art Library

The first balloon crossing of the English Channel, January 7, 1785; detail from an oil painting by E.W. Cocks, circa 1840

The Age of Wonder means the period of sixty years between 1770 and 1830, commonly called the Romantic Age. It is most clearly defined as an age of poetry. As every English schoolchild of my generation learned, the Romantic Age had three major poets, Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge, at the beginning, and three more major poets, Shelley and Keats and Byron, at the end. In literary style it is sharply different from the Classical Age before it (Dryden and Pope) and the Victorian Age after it (Tennyson and Browning). Looking at nature, Blake saw a vision of wildness:

Tyger, tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Byron saw a vision of darkness:

The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air….

During the same period there were great Romantic poets in other countries, Goethe and Schiller in Germany and Pushkin in Russia, but Richard Holmes writes only about the local scene in England.

Holmes is well known as a biographer. He has published biographies of Coleridge and Shelley and other literary heroes. But this book is primarily concerned with scientists rather than with poets. The central figures in the story are the botanist Joseph Banks, the chemists Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday, the astronomers William Herschel and his sister Caroline and son John, the medical doctors Erasmus Darwin and William Lawrence, and the explorers James Cook and Mungo Park. The scientists of that age were as Romantic as the poets. The scientific discoveries were as unexpected and intoxicating as the poems. Many of the poets were intensely interested in science, and many of the scientists in poetry.

The scientists and the poets belonged to a single culture and were in many cases personal friends. Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin and progenitor of many of Charles’s ideas, published his speculations about evolution in a book-length poem, The Botanic Garden, in 1791. Humphry Davy wrote poetry all his life and published much of it. Davy was a close friend of Coleridge, Shelley a close friend of Lawrence. The boundless prodigality of nature inspired scientists and poets with the same feelings of wonder. The Age of Wonder is popular history at its best, racy, readable, and well documented. The subtitle, “How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science,” accurately describes what happened.

Holmes presents the drama in ten scenes, each dominated by one or two of the leading characters. The first scene belongs to Joseph Banks, who sailed with Captain James Cook on the ship Endeavour. This was Cook’s first voyage around the world. One of the purposes of the expedition was to observe the transit of Venus across the disc of the sun on June 3, 1769, from the island of Tahiti in the South Pacific. The tracking of the transit from the Southern Hemisphere, in combination with similar observations made from Europe, would give astronomers more accurate knowledge of the distance of the earth from the sun. Banks was officially chief botanist of the expedition, but he quickly became more interested in the human inhabitants of the island than in the plants. The ship stayed for three months at Tahiti, and he spent most of the time, including the nights, ashore. During the nights he was not observing plants.

A wealthy young man accustomed to aristocratic privileges in England, Banks quickly made friends with the Tahitian queen Oborea, who assigned one of her personal servants, Otheothea, to take care of him. With the help of Otheothea and other good friends, he acquired some fluency in the Tahitian language and customs. His journal contains a Tahitian vocabulary and detailed descriptions of the people he came to know. When the time came to set up the astronomical instruments and observe the transit of Venus, he took the trouble to explain to his Tahitian friends what was happening. “To them we shewd the planet upon the sun and made them understand that we came on purpose to see it.”

During the long months at sea after leaving Tahiti, Banks rewrote his journal entries into a formal narrative, “On the Manners and Customs of the South Sea Islands,” one of the founding documents of the science of anthropology. In a less formal essay written after his return to England, he wrote:

In the Island of Otaheite where Love is the Chief Occupation, the favourite, nay almost the Sole Luxury of the Inhabitants, both the bodies and souls of the women are modeld in the utmost perfection for that soft science.

The Tahiti that he describes was truly an earthly paradise, not yet ravaged by European greed and European diseases, twenty years before the visit of William Bligh and the Bounty mutineers, sixty-six years before the visit of Charles Darwin and the Beagle.


After exploring the South Seas, Cook sailed down the eastern coast of Australia and landed at Botany Bay. Banks failed to establish social contacts with the Australian aborigines and returned to his role as botanist, bringing back to England a treasure trove of exotic plants, many of them today carrying his name. After he returned to England, he found that he and Captain Cook had become public heroes. He was invited to meet King George III, who was then young and of sound mind and shared his passion for botany. He remained a lifelong friend of the King, who actively supported his creation of the national botanic garden at Kew.

Banks became president of the Royal Society in 1778 and held that office for forty-two years, officially presiding over British science for more than half of the Age of Wonder. He presided with a light hand and did not attempt to turn the Royal Society into a professional organization like the academies of science in Paris and Berlin. He believed that science was best done by amateurs like himself. If some financial support was needed for people without private means, it could best be provided by aristocratic patrons.

One of those for whom Banks found support was William Herschel, the greatest astronomer of the age. Herschel was a native Hanoverian, and was conscripted at the age of seventeen to fight for Hanover in the Seven Years’ War against the French. After surviving a battle that the Hanoverians lost, he escaped to England to begin a new life as a professional musician. Starting as a penniless refugee, he rose rapidly in the English musical world. By his late twenties he was director of the orchestra in the Pump Room at Bath, the health resort where people of wealth congregated to take the waters and listen to concerts. He stayed at Bath for sixteen years, running the musical life of the city by day and scanning the sky at night. As an astronomer he was a complete amateur, unpaid and self-taught.

At the beginning, when Herschel began observing the heavenly bodies, he believed that they were inhabited by intelligent aliens. The round objects that he saw on the moon were cities that the aliens had built. He continued throughout his life to publish wild speculations, many of which turned out later to be correct. He had two great advantages as an observer. First, he built his own instruments, and with his musician’s hands made exquisitely figured mirrors that gave sharper images than any other telescopes then existing. Second, he brought his younger sister Caroline over from Hanover to be his assistant, and she became an expert observer with many independent discoveries to her credit. His life as an amateur ended in 1781 when with Caroline’s help he discovered the planet Uranus.

As soon as Banks heard of the discovery, he invited Herschel to dinner, introduced him to the King, and arranged for him to be appointed the King’s personal astronomer with a salary of £200 a year, later supplemented by a separate salary of £50 a year for Caroline. Herschel’s musical career was over, and he spent the rest of his life as a professional astronomer. He obtained royal funding to build bigger telescopes, and embarked on a systematic survey of every star and nebulous object in the sky, pushing his search outward to include objects fainter and more distant than anyone else had seen.

Herschel understood that when he looked at remote objects he was looking not only into deep space but into deep time. He correctly identified many of the nebulous objects as external galaxies like our own Milky Way, and calculated that he was seeing them as they existed at least two million years in the past. He showed that the universe was not only immensely large but immensely old. He published papers that moved away from the old Aristotelian view of the heavens as a static domain of perpetual peace and harmony, and toward the modern view of the universe as a dynamically evolving system. He wrote of “a gradual dissolution of the Milky Way” that would provide “a kind of chronometer that may be used to measure the time of its past and future existence.” This idea of a galactic chronometer was the beginning of the new science of cosmology.

As Holmes’s account suggests, all the leading scientists of the Romantic Age, like Banks and Herschel, started their lives as brilliant, unconventional, credulous, and adventurous amateurs. They blundered into science or literature in pursuit of ideas that were often absurd. They became sober professionals only after they had achieved success. Another example was Humphry Davy, who originally intended to be a physician and worked, as part of his medical training, as an assistant at the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol. The Pneumatic Institution was a clinic where patients were treated for ailments of all kinds by inhaling gases. Among the gases available for inhaling was nitrous oxide. Davy experimented enthusiastically with nitrous oxide, using himself and his friends, including Coleridge, as subjects. After one of these sessions, he wrote:


I have felt a more high degree of pleasure from breathing nitrous oxide than I ever felt from any cause whatever—a thrilling all over me most exquisitely pleasurable, I said to myself I was born to benefit the world by my great talents.

Davy was so popular in Bristol that he was invited at the age of twenty-three to become assistant lecturer in chemistry at the Royal Institution in London. The Royal Institution was a newly founded venture that provided “regular courses of philosophical lectures and experiments” for fashionable London audiences. For the preparation of experimental demonstrations to astound and educate the public, the lecturer was provided with a laboratory where he could also do original research.

Davy promptly switched his research activities from physiology to chemistry. He became the first electrochemist, using a huge electric battery to decompose chemical compounds, and discovered the elements sodium and potassium. Later he invented the Davy safety lamp, which made it possible for coal miners to work underground without killing themselves in methane explosions. The lamp made him even more famous. Coleridge invited him to move north and establish a chemical laboratory in the Lake District where Coleridge and Wordsworth lived. Coleridge wrote to him, “I shall attack Chemistry like a Shark.” Davy wisely stayed in London, where he succeeded Banks as president of the Royal Society and chief panjandrum of British science. The poet Byron gave him a couple of lines in his poem Don Juan :


Private Collection/Bridgeman Art Library

Frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; engraving by Theodor M. von Holst

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.