Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Attacking Chemistry Like a Shark

Freeman Dyson's NYRB review of The Age of Wonder loses interest in the book about halfway through, and meanders into some rather embarrassing attempts to find parallels between the modern world and the late-18th century consensus of wonder. (I haven't read the book itself, but Dyson fails even to mention that the central event of the so-called "Age of Wonder," at least as far as poets were concerned, was the French Revolution. It is not clear whether this is due to his narrowness of perspective or the author's.) Here's Dyson the master analogist:
Each achievement of our modern pioneers resonates with echoes from the past. Venter sailed around the world on his yacht collecting genomes of microbes from the ocean and sequencing them wholesale, like Banks who sailed around the world collecting plants. Mullis invented the polymerase chain reaction, which allows biologists to multiply a single molecule of DNA into a bucketful of identical molecules within a few hours, and after that spent most of his time surfing the beaches of California, like Davy who invented the miners' lamp and after that spent much of his time fly-fishing along the rivers of Scotland.

However, the first half of the review has some delightful bits, including:
  1. "I have felt a more high degree of pleasure from breathing nitrous oxide than I ever felt from any cause whatever—a thrilling all over me most exquisitely pleasurable, I said to myself I was born to benefit the world by my great talents." (Humphry Davy)
  2. Coleridge invited him [Davy] to move north and establish a chemical laboratory in the Lake District where Coleridge and Wordsworth lived. Coleridge wrote to him, "I shall attack Chemistry like a Shark."

And the book seems worth reading, even though, as I said, Dyson's review is narrow and tendentious, and some of that might have come from the book.

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