Richard Holmes’ book “The Age of Wonder” was last week announced as the winner of the Royal Society Prize for Science books, beating such luminaries as Ben Goldacre (for “Bad Science”) and Neil Shubin (for “Your Inner Fish”) to the podium. I’m delighted. I’m half way through it, and was whooping with joy already at the end of the first section, which deals with the rise of Joseph Banks – explorer with Captain Cook, consort of Tahitian maidens, and the Royal Society’s longest serving president. Holmes is particularly good at examining science within the context of its time, and since this was the romantic age, the scientists are given to awe and the romantic poets quite open to the beauty of science. The classic example of this is Keats’ “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer”. This poem contains the often quoted lines

“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with wond’ring eyes*
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”

The watcher of the skies in question is William Herschel, whose discovery of Uranus had recently stunned the world by suggesting how much there might be about the universe we had neither known nor suspected. Nor is this the only link with science; when he wrote this Keats was actually a medical student (I will leave the argument about how scientific medicine was at the time for another day).

Holmes is magnificently dismissive of the notion that already, at this stage, there were any traces of the ‘two cultures’ debate which bedevils science in our age. He is himself primarily a biographer of the romantic poets, in particular known for work on Coleridge. Yet this in no way prevents him conveying the scientific ideas which were important at the time – some of them stunning in their prescience – and their thrilling significance to a society convulsing itself around the first of the great political revolutions.

Living as I do in the 21st rather than 18th century, it is impossible to not wonder where things changed. Is it the professionalization of science? Or is it the complexity of work at the cutting edge? Whichever, Holmes reminds us that Science and Literature can make very good companions. Lablit indeed.

*Keats changed ‘wond’ring’ to ‘eagle’ in later versions. I prefer the original. It seems more in keeping with the scientific part of the poem’s inspiration. Oh, and he got the Cortez bit wrong, it was actually de Balboa. But heck, this is poetry, not history.