Tag Archives: Science

Marginalia, no.289

In the coming century phrenology will assuredly attain general acceptance. It will prove itself to be the true science of mind. Its practical uses in education, in self-discipline, in the reform treatment of criminals and in the medical treatment of the insane will give it one of the highest places in the hierarchy of the sciences; and its persistent neglect and obloquy during the last sixty years will be referred to as an example of the most inconceivable narrowness and prejudice…

~ Alfred Russel Wallace

If it didn’t require us for its survival, science would do just fine. Instead, it’s like a telescope mounted on top of a swaying tree. There’s something almost endearing in how easily we admit the errors of former times while insisting on our own enlightened certainties. We like to mistake the advancement of science and technology for moral progress. The first inventor of the wheel probably thought he could never be wrong about anything ever again.


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Reading Notes: Richard Holmes

Consider the following two quotations – the first from Humphry Davy and the second from Thomas Carlyle – and ask yourself how we get from the one to the other:

“Imagination, as well as reason, is necessary to perfection in the philosophic [i.e. scientific] mind. A rapidity of combination, a power of perceiving analogies, and of comparing them by facts, is the creative source of discovery.”

“The progress of science is to destroy Wonder…”

To what degree are the aims of science aligned with those of art? When and why did they begin to diverge? These are some of the questions explored in Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder, an expertly guided tour of the era of “romantic science,” when scientists were still philosophers and philosophers were artists, when discoveries were made (according to the myth) by flashes of insight and obscure inspiration, and when the possibility of scientific horror first began to suggest itself.

We start in 1769 with the young Joseph Banks in Tahiti, there in the capacity of gentleman naturalist assigned to Cook’s expedition to observe the transit of Venus. With his treasury of journals, specimens, and anthropological observations, he returns (just barely) to England and moves from notable disillusionment to notable accomplishment. As vigorous, long-lived president of the Royal Society, Banks becomes the patron spirit of the age, and the rest of the book.

In addition to Banks, Holmes spends a lot of his time with William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus; with his sister Caroline; with Mungo Park in Africa; and with Humphry Davy, who does for the science of chemistry what the Herschels do for astronomy. We’re also given glimpses of George III, Linnaeus, Benjamin Franklin, Erasmus Darwin, a whole host of balloonists, Dr Johnson, Horace Walpole, Gilbert White, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy and Mary Shelley, and – as the new scientific generation comes into its own – Michael Faraday, John Herschel, and the young Charles Darwin.

I’m not a specialist or historian of the period, but I loved every page of this book, and I learned something new on every page. Like a more successful Dr Frankenstein, Holmes has knit together a lost era, but reanimated it so convincingly and compellingly that its questioning spirit, its anxieties, and its sense of wonder become our own again.

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Marginalia, no.38

There is in Nothing something so majestic and so high that it is a fascination and spell to regard it.  Is it not that which Mankind, after the great effort of life, at last attains, and that which alone can satisfy Man’s desire?

~ Hillaire Belloc, On Nothing and Kindred Subjects

I recently heard an astrophysicist from the University of Chicago quoted on the subject of dark energy, gravity’s evil twin, which is supposed to fill the observed gaps between galaxies and drive the accelerating expansion of the cosmos.   “Fifty years ago Nothing was considered very boring,” he said.  “Today Nothing is the focus of much forefront research in physics and astrophysics.”  I could only think of Belloc’s essay and smile at the idea of human insatiability and ambition blowing up the universe like a balloon, to the grand befuddlement of science.

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Remembering Phlogiston

Science lives in a perpetual present, and must always discard its own past as it advances.  (If a contemporary thermodynamicist refers to the literature on phlogiston, he will do so as a humanist, not as a scientist.  Nor did Edwin Hubble need to know about Ptolemy, though he did.)  The humanities do not advance in that sense: they accumulate, and the past is always retained.

That’s Clive James from his heavy volume of essays titled Cultural Amnesia.  I’m not sure it’s entirely licit to refer to “science” in the singular like that; science as a whole consists of so many separate and unrelated disciplines.  But James is talking about what we might call the scientific mind or perspective.  And practitioners of the physical sciences do seem to share a single pair of glasses between them all: a single guiding vision of discrete materialism and rationally incrementalized progress toward specific goals of objective knowledge.

This is to deal in generalizations.  But I think James’ distinction is a nice one.  I once described the study of literature – and of the humanities in general – as a means of cultivating and passing on a particular “tradition of being.”  To put it more prosaically I might have said “culture.”  The particular culture I had in mind was that western one built on the inheritance of Greece and Rome, of Christianity, the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, etc.  It’s worth noting that science in all its various manifestations springs from those same roots.

The relationship between science and the humanities, however, is often strained, resembling that of feuding cousins archly sneering across the square at each other as they pass by on diverging errands.  Devotees of science are fond of announcing the irrelevance of those who dedicate themselves to, say, the study of Romantic poetry, the history of the Holy Roman Empire, or the stage.  For their part, students of the humanities pity the labcoats as owners of emaciated souls, lacking in universal perspective, with an impoverished sense of their own humanity.

All of this is silliness.  Our various pursuits in science and the humanities ought to be mutually reinforcing and enriching.  In the symbolism of the human spirit, science represents exploration, curiosity and the yearning for outward knowledge, while the humanities represents memory, the critical endeavor and the thirst for inward knowledge. What Shakespeare scholar of goodwill can deny the value of antibiotics when he’s suffering from bacterial pneumonia?  And what DNA-decoder of goodwill can deny the value of lessons learned in the horrific history of twentieth-century eugenics? 

Of course, in either case goodwill is required.

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