Discovery of Extra-terrestrial life will fuel Romantic visions

As our world expands, so do the visions of philosophers, poets and painters.  Man’s sense of adventure and discovery, of place and purpose, ascends to the highest Romantic heights when science leads the way to the future.

This month, a NASA scientist Dr. Richard B. Hoover published a report on his discovery of fossil evidence of micro-organisms in space asteroids. Dr. Hoover is an astrobiologist at the Marshal Space Flight Center and published the article in the Journal of Cosmology.  This is an interesting story for the science pages, but will have larger ramifications on art, literature and culture as our attention is expanded to the possibilities beyond our sphere.

Both the Romantic arts and the Sciences are very humanistic, secular, even atheistic.   They both revolve around Man as a Hero, understanding his role in the world and taking actions with purpose. The discovery of life beyond our planet supports the view that man is at once part of nature, and apart from it.  And is able to discover, understand, explore, and even to conquer wilderness, planets, and deep space.

On March 13th, 1781, William Herschel announced his discovery of a new planet, which came to be called Uranus. (side note, Herschel originally named the planet Georgium Sidus after King George). Herschel spent his life scanning the heavens for new bodies and signs of life.  He was passionate about the notion of life on the Moon, and in the new worlds he discovered.  William Herschel was pretty incredible as a man of science, but also for his artistic talent.  He was an accomplished musician and poet.  Romantic poets of his day were inspired by his discoveries.

Herschel’s discovery of a new planet rocked philosophy, art, religion, as well as science.  For over 1000 years, there were only 6 planets.  The systems of the world were based on this fact, and the 7th planet transformed man’s world from the ancient rigid firmament into an endless expanse populated with other worlds.  Dr. Hoover’s recent announcement can have the same impact on our 21st Century worldview.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in April 1805:  In looking at objects of Nature while I am thinking, as at yonder moon dim-glimmering through the dewy window-pane, I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking for, a symbolical language for something within me that already and for ever exists, than observing anything new. This quote is from the website Romantic Natural History which is “a website designed to survey relationships between literary works and natural history in the century before Charles Darwin”

The theme of Science and Romantic artists is central to Richard Holmes’ terrific non-fiction book Age of Wonder.  Holmes weaves together history and biography of both scientists (Herschel, Davy, Banks) and of Romantic poets (Erasmus Darwin, Coleridge, Shelly).  I picked this book up in an airport thinking it was just another light survey of science history.  One page in and I knew it was bigger and richer than that.  It is the best book I have read in a long time and has shaped my view of the interaction of art and science.  Read this book.  Share it with your high school age students.

On my recent trip to London and to the Natural History Museum, I called the edifices of Albertopolis “Cathedrals of Enlightenment“.  There is an elegant beauty in science and arts looking to each other to help create vocabulary and metaphors for the new things each creates and discovers.  I now want to return to Albertopolis to once again see the arts and sciences side by side and take them in together in a new context.

“Reality provides us with facts so romantic that imagination itself could add nothing to them.”  -Jules Verne

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