The word dominates chapter one of Richard Holmes’s book The Age of Wonder. Holmes writes biographies of Romantic-Era writers: Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge populate his bibliography. They have cameos in Age. But their scientific counterparts star.
“Their natural-philosopher” counterparts, I should say. The word “scientist” emerged as the Romantic Era closed. Romanticism, a literary and artistic movement, flourished between the 1700s and the 1800s. Romantics championed self-expression, individuality, and emotion over convention and artificiality. Romantics wondered at, and drew inspiration from, the natural world. So, Holmes argues, did Romantic-Era natural philosophers. They explored, searched, and innovated with Wollstonecraft’s, Shelley’s, and Coleridge’s zest.
Holmes depicts Wilhelm and Caroline Herschel, a German brother and sister, discovering the planet Uranus. Humphry Davy, an amateur poet from Penzance, inventing a lamp that saved miners’ lives. Michael Faraday, a working-class Londoner, inspired by Davy’s chemistry lectures.
Joseph Banks in paradise.
So Holmes entitled chapter one.
Banks studied natural history as a young English gentleman during the 1760s. He then sailed around the world, a botanist on exploratory expeditions. The second expedition brought Banks aboard the HMS Endeavor. Captain James Cook steered the ship to Brazil, Tahiti, Australia, and New Zealand. Banks brought a few colleagues onboard. They studied the native flora, fauna, skies, and tribes.
Banks, with fellow botanist Daniel Solander, accumulated over 30,000 plant samples. Artist Sydney Parkinson drew the plants during the voyage. Parkinson’s drawings underlay 743 copper engravings that Banks commissioned upon returning to England. Banks planned to publish the engravings as the book Florilegium. He never succeeded. Two institutions executed Banks’s plan more than 200 years later.
Banks’s Florilegium crowns an exhibition at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB). UCSB’s Special Research Collections will host “Botanical Illustrations and Scientific Discovery—Joseph Banks and the Exploration of the South Pacific, 1768–1771” until May 2018. The exhibition features maps of Banks’s journeys, biographical sketches of Banks and Cook, contemporary art inspired by the engravings, and the Florilegium.
The exhibition spotlights “plants that have subsequently become important ornamental plants on the UCSB campus, throughout Santa Barbara, and beyond.” One sees, roaming Santa Barbara, slivers of Banks’s paradise.
In Santa Barbara resides the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP). The KITP is hosting a program about the physics of quantum information (QI). QI scientists are congregating from across the world. Everyone visits for a few weeks or months, meeting some participants and missing others (those who have left or will arrive later). Participants attend and present tutorials, explore beyond their areas of expertise, and initiate research collaborations.
A conference capstoned the program, one week this October. Several speakers had founded subfields of physics: quantum error correction (how to fix errors that dog quantum computers), quantum computational complexity (how quickly quantum computers can solve hard problems), topological quantum computation, AdS/CFT (a parallel between certain gravitational systems and certain quantum systems), and more. Swaths of science exist because of these thinkers.
One evening that week, I visited the Joseph Banks exhibition.
Joseph Banks in paradise.
I’d thought that, by “paradise,” Holmes had meant “physical attractions”: lush flowers, vibrant colors, fresh fish, and warm sand. Another meaning occurred to me, after the conference talks, as I stood before a glass case in the library.
Joseph Banks, disembarking from the Endeavour, didn’t disembark onto just an island. He disembarked onto terra incognita. Never had he or his colleagues seen the blossoms, seed pods, or sprouts before him. Swaths of science awaited. What could the natural philosopher have craved more?
QI scientists of a certain age reminisce about the 1990s, the cowboy days of QI. When impactful theorems, protocols, and experiments abounded. When they dangled, like ripe fruit, just above your head. All you had to do was look up, reach out, and prove a pineapple.
That generation left mine few simple theorems to prove. But QI hasn’t suffered extinction. Its frontiers have advanced into other fields of science. Researchers are gaining insight into thermodynamics, quantum gravity, condensed matter, and chemistry from QI. The KITP conference highlighted connections with quantum gravity.
What could a natural philosopher crave more?
Most KITP talks are recorded and released online. You can access talks from the conference here. My talk, about quantum chaos and thermalization, appears here.
With gratitude to the KITP, and to the program organizers and the conference organizers, for the opportunity to participate.
The age of wonder is such a great book. One of the best I’ve read in the last few years.
I appreciate the allusion to Blazing Saddles.
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