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The Sciences

Romantic Science

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollAugust 3, 2009 11:35 PM

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The Romantic period (roughly 1770-1830) was better represented by poetry than by science. On the poetic side, you had Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, Blake, Wordsworth, Goethe, Schiller, Pushkin, and more. On the science side, you had Michael Faraday, William Herschel, Humphry Davy, Erasmus Darwin; no slouches, to be sure, but you wouldn't pick out this period as one of the golden ages of science. But the interesting thing about this era, according to Richard Holmes's new book The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, is that the scientists and the poets were deeply interested in each others' work. That's what I gather, anyway -- not having read the book yet myself -- from Freeman Dyson's review in the New York Review of Books. It's a provocative look into the cultural mindset of another time, when the power of science to discover new things about the world wasn't yet quite taken for granted. Dyson quotes a stanza from Byron's Don Juan:

This is the patent age of new inventions For killing bodies, and for saving souls, All propagated with the best intentions; Sir Humphry Davy's lantern, by which coals Are safely mined for in the mode he mentions, Tombuctoo travels, voyages to the Poles, Are ways to benefit mankind, as true, Perhaps, as shooting them at Waterloo.

Scientists and poets don't talk to each other as much any more (although thereareexceptions). I tend to lament the fact that science doesn't mingle more comfortably with other kinds of cultural currents of our time. Maybe it's just not possible -- we've become too specialized, leaving no room for a writer like Coleridge to proclaim "I shall attack Chemistry like a Shark." But the more we scientists take seriously to share our ideas with the wider world, the more those ideas will take root.

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