Sunday, May 16, 2010

Common Household Mom Reading: The Age of Wonder

I just finished reading The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes.  It’s a fascinating examination of (mostly English) science and literature during the late 1700s through mid-1800s.  Okay, it will be hard to tell from what I write here that it is a fascinating book, but I found it to be so.

At that time much scientific activity was connected with nationalism.  Take the case of hot air ballooning.  There was a race between England and France to be the first to make ballooning practical, and maybe even use it as a way of military surveillance.  It was a competition not just between the scientists, but between their nations.

Another characteristic of science during that time was the drudgery and risk involved: making thousands of observations, writing it all down, undergoing many trials before successful results, encountering explosions, breathing in harmful chemicals, undertaking dangerous voyages through sea and air...

Perhaps none of this has changed about science: nationalism, drudgery, and risk.

I think my favorite part of this book was the account of Caroline Herschel, astronomer.  Her older brother William Herschel emigrated from Germany to England, starting out in his adopted country by earning his living as a musician and doing astronomy as an amateur.  He invented a better telescope than the ones in existence at that time. Eventually he devoted all his waking hours (mostly in the middle of the night) to cataloguing the stars and making telescopes.  He rescued his younger sister Caroline from a fate of being basically a slave to the rest of the family in Germany, and brought her to England. At first she was his housekeeper.  Then she became his assistant for his “sweeps” of the night sky.  She soon became just as dedicated to astronomy as William Herschel.  While her brother was traveling out of the country, Caroline stayed home and continued observing the night sky, and thus discovered a comet.  She was the first woman to be granted (by the Queen) a salary for scientific work.  And to think that the rest of her family wanted her to be their scullery maid.

I would like to say “We’ve come a long way, baby” but I still wonder if my 10-year-old girl, who is very interested in science, will be forced off the path of a scientific career.  She is interested in science, but not nationalism, drudgery, or risk.

1 comment:

Alise said...

While I don't love the conflation of science and nationalism, I fear right now that nationalism at least here in America pushes you AWAY from science. So perhaps your daughter's love of science and not so much of nationalism will be beneficial to her (though probably not so much when it comes to funding).