‘Darkness’, Lord Byron (1816)
Darwin’s argument for evolution by natural selection gets a lot of attention as the science bombshell of the 19th century that shocked the sensibilities of Victorian society, but there was an equally consequential, if less dramatic, scientific development that took place much earlier in the century, a development that left a deep impression on the generation before Darwin: William Herschel’s discovery that the universe is much bigger and much older than nearly anyone had imagined.
William Herschel’s scientific findings, made with his ever larger telescopes, were a frequent target of Romantic poets’ imaginations, and towards the end of his career, Herschel’s speculations about the past and future of the cosmos fed Romantic angst over the role of God and humanity in what now seemed to be a jaw-droppingly vast cosmic stage.
Among Herschel’s more disturbing ideas is the notion of a natural end to the Milky Way. As Richard Holmes notes in The Age of Wonder, Herschel jarred the poet Thomas Campbell by explaining that the night sky was filled with “many distant stars [that] had probably ‘ceased to exist’ millions of years ago, and that looking up into the night sky we were seeing a stellar landscape that was not really there at all. The sky was full of ghosts.”1 Continue reading “Sunday Science Poem: Lord Byron’s Post-Apocalyptic Vision”