Now in Papervision: My Article on 18th Century Scientists

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This ran in Time, and I just decided it was germane to this blog. Just like that.

It’s a piece about a book — no wait, hear me out — about late 18th century scientists, who were working at a time when the field was so wide open, anybody with a basement lab and some free time could make major discoveries.

The book is called Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, and the title makes it sound like a YA novel about a young girl’s erotic flowering at summer camp, but it’s actually about hardcore hacking, or what passed for it in the 1780s, and I couldn’t put it down. I would be talking to people, and my eyes would literally be wandering over to it, trying to decide how rude it would be if I picked it up and started reading.

A free sample from the review:

The book is organized as a series of linked biographical sketches. One of them is of Humphry Davy, a cocky little guy who was born in Cornwall, England, in 1778. He was an apothecary’s apprentice who practically frothed with genius and ambition. Over the course of his career, he postulated the carbon cycle, used electricity to isolate sodium and potassium and saved countless lives by inventing a safety lamp for coal miners. He also studied the health benefits of nitrous oxide — laughing gas. Oh, to be a fly on the wall while Davy huffed 18th century whippits with Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, both close friends. After ingesting 100 (!) quarts (95 liters) of nitrous using a homemade gas chamber, Davy wrote:

I seemed to be a sublime being, newly created and superior to other mortals, I was indignant at what they said of me and stalked majestically out of the laboratory to inform Dr. Kinglake privately that nothing existed but thoughts.

Davy’s not here, man. (Coleridge was less impressed. As an opium addict, he was used to harder stuff.)

If for no other reason, you should click through to see one of the worst headlines ever written.