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Arsenic and the Age of Wonder

This past week, there has been a great deal of excitement over NASA’s announcement of finding a life-form that does not follow the usual pattern of life on earth. Almost immediately there was additional blogosphere buzz viewing this research with a critical eye indicating that perhaps much more careful work needs to be done. To me, this discussion is clearly evidence of the process of science. How did we get to the stage where a science discovery is peer reviewed, published and critiqued then verified, modified or rejected?

To answer the question, I’m going to suggest reading the book The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. Although the book was published in 2009, I just recently received the paperback version. The book has more than 500 pages with a small font. However, once I got going on it, I could hardly put it down. This book begins with a comprehensive account of the adventures of Joseph Banks who, as a young man, accompanied Captain James Cook on his first exploratory voyage to the south Pacific. The narrative continues through the years until we find a young Charles Darwin meeting and being influenced by John Herschel in South Africa.

The Age of Wonder Cover

Richard Holmes’ book examines a period of time when many of today’s established scientific disciplines were just beginning. Chemistry, geology, physics and biology all really started to flourish during the Age of Wonder. Astronomy had long been studied, but it was during this time that it along with the other sciences became formalized through the Royal Society in Britain and equivalent organizations in many other countries. Joseph Banks served as president of the Royal Society for 41 years. Under his leadership the society cultivated the sciences in Britain. Banks also ensured continued cooperation and friendly competition of scientists from all over Europe and America as he endeavoured to keep science free from the politics and wars of the time.

In the book, Holmes takes us through the contributions of the Herschel family, focussing on William, his sister Caroline, and William’s son John. Did the financial support to the Herschels signify the beginning of government grants for the sciences? Was Caroline the first female professional scientist? Insights are presented in the Age of Wonder. Holmes also talks about the beginnings of chemistry and the contributions of Humphrey Davy and his protégé, Michael Faraday. Holmes also brings in the excitement of early balloon flight and the mix of poets and writers in connection with the sciences that existed through the time period of the book. Finally, Holmes illustrates the Zeitgeist Charles Darwin was in just prior to the publication of his On the Origin of Species.

"Nullius in verba" is the motto for the Royal Society. It means “Take nobody's word for it". In these times of social networks and microblogs, it means keep a critical eye on what we read. The arsenic based life-forms announced by NASA are just the latest example of the public becoming excited about a scientific announcement, only to learn later that there may be more to the story.

Arsenic and the Age of Wonder

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