Keyboard Access Tips

To play Seven Ages of Science - 4. Age of Inspiration you need to enable JavaScript. How?

Seven Ages of Science - 4. Age of Inspiration

Lisa Jardine explores an age in which scientists took leaps of faith.

Lisa Jardine explores an Age in which scientists took leaps of faith.

At the start of the 19th century, fossils were a mystery. Mary Anning excavated the remains of huge and extraordinary creatures from the cliff face at Lyme Regis. Most men of science assumed she'd found a crocodile: she insisted her creature was entirely unknown. As other such mysterious monsters were unearthed, they represented a puzzle for established theology, but theology coped.

Electricity, "that imponderable fluid", was another mystery; as was magnetism, another weird and invisible force. Maxwell's Laws of electro-magnetism, lavishly praised by Einstein decades later, explained them both, and light as well. His four simple equations reduced mystery by unifying apparently disparate phenomena. A notion that pervades and drives much of physics to this day.

The way in which telegraph networks deliver messages might as well have been magic. And several well respected Victorian physicists believed that if voices can travel invisibly over hundreds of miles, then perhaps the laws of physics could help us communicate in séances with dead souls.

Perhaps the biggest mystery of all concerned the origin of life itself. We tend to imagine a great clash between science and religion in the middle of the 19th century but for most of the century there was little conflict. Theology was able to accommodate the fossil evidence, or not worry too much about it; and evolutionary ideas had been around since Charles Darwin's grandfather published his scientific poem, Zoonomia. And, when Darwin published On the Origin of Species many in the chattering classes remained light-hearted, with one notable woman of letters remarking that she didn't believe her grandfather was an oyster.

  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 4, 3:30PM Wed, 28 Aug 2013
  • Available until 12:00AM Thu, 1 Jan 2099
  • First broadcast BBC Radio 4, 9:00PM Tue, 27 Aug 2013
  • Categories
  • Duration 28 minutes

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.