Romantic Poets and Scientists


“A good history of science unreels like the practice of science itself. It wends through a world of experiments until a new reality arises. But the more layered story of that journey is that science is not just a process but is the men and women performing it.”

From a review on Salon of The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes. The reviewer continues:

Holmes treats us to the amazing lives of the pioneering sailors and balloonists, astronomers and chemists of the Romantic era. Making good on the book’s subtitle, he takes us on a dazzling tour of their chaotic British observatories and fatal explorations in African jungles, showing us “how the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science.”

That’s an exceptional insight. After all, this was the time when William Wordsworth wandered lonely as a cloud along England’s lakes and John Keats told us all we need to know on earth is “beauty is truth.” To this day, Romantic poets and scientists are not supposed to be seen together. “Romanticism as a cultural force is generally regarded as intensely hostile to science, its ideal of subjectivity eternally opposed to that of scientific objectivity,” Holmes writes.

This concept of subjective vs. objective, or of Romanticism vs. Positivism, reminds me of something else. My wife is a chemistry teacher, and over the years she has told me many stories — some from the encyclopedias about noted figures in the history of chemistry, others unrepeatable (by me) in print and based on first-hand experience inside the Fortress of Grad School — that demonstrate the point that all science has a significant subjective element to this day. Scientific research emerges from a dense network of personal ambition, rivalry, ability, funding (which is made available based on the subjective decisions of funders), institutional support, the profit or prestige motive, and the quirks of individual scientists who decide, often on the basis of hunches and personal preferences within the available possibilities, what avenue of research to pursue next. Once you see a little bit of the world of research up close, you become amazed that anything continues to be discovered at all — not because there’s nothing left to discover, but because the world of science is a very human mess of competing subjective claims that would seem to constrain discovery.

Anyway, this sounds like a really interesting book. Check out the review here.

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →