Friday, October 02, 2009

Romantic science

Listening to NPR's Talk of the Nation the other day on my I-pod, I was introduced to The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes.


There was a time almost 200 years ago when you didn't have to go to school to be a scientist or an astronomer. You could just peer up into the sky and ask questions and you'll be an astronomer. Of course, there were a few telescopes then, but that didn't stop you, you could design and build your own. Or if astronomy was not your thing, you could start experimenting with nitrous oxide to be a chemist using yourself and your close friend as the test subjects. As I said, formal schooling wasn't as important, but you had to be adventurous, creative and determined and, above all, inquisitive and filled with wonder.

This was the world of science during the romantic era of the late 18th to early 19th centuries. It was time before the word scientist was used. Instead, they were called natural philosophers. And there was no divide between the arts and the sciences, and both were united in their sense of wonder, the wonder of the world around them. The science inspired the arts, and the arts inspired the science. They belong to a single culture.

And for the rest of the hour, we're going to be talking about a new book called "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science." It's not your typical science history novel. There's almost as much wonder and poetry as there is science in the book. It's quite an interesting read.
The whole discussion is interesting, but I found this tidbit particularly worth noting.

FLATOW: And they were not called scientists in those days.

Prof. HOLMES: No, that's a - it's a very interesting - the term natural philosopher really had been used since the formation of the Royal Society itself around the 1660s. And what happens during the period that I'm studying is that gradually a scientist becomes more professional. And there's a very interesting meeting of an internally new body towards the end of the book, this is in 1833, called the British Association for the Advancement of Science. There's of course, an America one now. And they had a great debate about what they should call themselves because natural philosopher no longer covered it. And somebody produced the word scientist of which that was an appalled silence because people said it sounds like atheist. And that's a debate we're still having today.
I was aware that science was originally considered natural philosophy and its practioners natural philosophers, but I had never heard that scientist was ever considered to sound too much like atheist.

See the New York Times review for more on the book.

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