The Age of Wonder, Thunder or Blunder?

I am reading The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes’ award-winning romp through the romantic era of science which lasted, roughly speaking, from the middle of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth. I may one of these days write a review of it for Lablit (though please don’t tell them – I don’t want to over-commit). For the time being, it may be taking me an _age_ to read the book, but I can confirm that it is wonderful.
I have been struck by some of the resonances with present-day science. In particular, I have noted the responses of some of the 18th Century scientists to vitriolic criticism of their views.
Humphry Davy and his Bristol mentor, Thomas Beddoes, were colourfully castigated by pamphleteers in 1800 as “Bladder conjurors and newfangled Doctors pimping for Caloric” and accused of using their experiments with nitrous oxide to seduce the young women of the city. The very idea!
Nineteen years later the surgeon William Lawrence was taken to task by the Quarterly Review for his denial of the soul, for his materialist views on life and for asserting “that there is no difference between a man and an oyster, other than that one possesses bodily organs more fully developed than the other”. Oyster-sized reasoning, if ever I heard it!
What is interesting is the response of the scientists to these assaults: none of them resorted to the libel laws. For sure there was a vigorous, not to say censorious, publishing industry at that time, which pulled no punches in attacking science and scientists. But Davy, Beddoes and Lawrence, their scientific instincts intact, stuck to their guns and argued the toss.
All of which is–I must finally confess–a way of bringing to your attention the latest phase in the campaign for reform of the libel laws, which are having such a chilling effect on our ability to discourse freely on matters scientific and medical. These days, although science continues to reveal plenty of wonders, on some matters–especially those relating to public health–powerful organisations are using the thunderous power of England’s libel laws to drown out critics. Which, as we have seen can lead to the most awful blunders in human healthcare.
I know, I know. I am at risk of sounding like a cracked record on this topic but on Tuesday 23rd March, next week, if you are a resident of the UK and happen to be in London, you will be able to participate in a mass lobby of Parliament which is being organised by The Libel Reform Campaign (follow the link for details).

_Squint and you can see Parliament in 3D – otherwise go along for real_
Never lobbied your MP before? It could be fun! You get to meet some “high profile champions of the campaign” and see the fabulous interior of the Palace of Westminster. And do something valuable for libel reform. It’s vital that we keep this issue burning as the election approaches.

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2 Responses to The Age of Wonder, Thunder or Blunder?

  1. Matt Brown says:

    I did a pub crawl round the houses of parliament a couple of nights ago – see if you can get into the Lords Bar while you’re there…excellent views from the terrace.
    Age of Wonder is indeed wonderful. I’ve just finished it myself. I particularly liked the chapters on Banks and Herschel. I might try the Lunar Men next – anyone read it?

  2. Stephen Curry says:

    Yet another incentive for people to go along – thanks Matt. I’m afraid I can’t make it myself this time as I am taking part in the London Structural Biology Club over at Birkbeck that afternoon.
    I have read _The Lunar Men_ and can heartily recommend it to you!

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