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Sir Humphry Davy used poetry and theatre to bring science to life

James Gillray’s ‘Scientific Researches! - New Discoveries in Pneumaticks! - or - an Experimental Lecture on the Powers of Air’ from 1802. The Royal Institution of Great Britain, Author provided

Sir Humphry Davy used poetry and theatre to bring science to life

Sir Humphry Davy fascinated rapturous crowds when he delivered his lectures in chemistry to the Royal Institution in London. In the late 1700s and early 1800s and in sumptuous surroundings, Davy would demonstrate – with whizzes and bangs – the latest chemical discoveries. His audiences were not just made up of fellow scientists but also poets and genteel ladies of the fashionable West End.

His experiments with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, and his invention of the miner’s safety lamp went down in history – but perhaps his greatest legacy is what he did for science communication and breaking down the barriers between the sciences and the arts.

Davy’s lectures were charismatic and explosive (sometimes literally, see the recreation of his exploding volcano demonstration here). And they were often poetic. Now, as the first edition of the Collected Letters of Humphry Davy is set to be published, it is perhaps time to take another look at one of Britain’s most renowned scientists.

It has been almost six decades since CP Snow famously argued that there were “two cultures” of the arts and sciences. He thought that an unbridgeable chasm divided those who worked in these fields, that they had become so specialised they no longer had the language to talk to each other. Whether you think that this was true then or is true now, Davy – as a poet and a chemist – shows that any such chasm can be bridged.

Portrait of Humphry Davy by H W Pickersgill from 1831. The Royal Institution of Great Britain, Author provided

Davy was born in relatively humble circumstances, the son of a wood carver in Penzance. Even as a child, his sister reported that: “At home, he would shut himself up in his room, arrange the chairs and lecture them by the hour.”

Many of his first poems date from this period. Poems about Mounts Bay and other Cornish landscapes, as well as a poem in which Davy’s personal ambition was laid bare, entitled Sons of Genius. He drew comparisons between the ordinary man (who finds explanations for natural wonders in superstition) and a scientific genius:

While superstition rules the vulgar soul,

Forbids the energies of man to rise,

Raised far above her low, her mean control,

Aspiring genius seeks her native skies.

Davy was first apprenticed to an apothecary but after he showed precocious talents he was allowed to escape his indentures and instead went to work with the politically radical chemist Thomas Beddoes, who supported the ideals of the French revolution, at his new Medical Pneumatic Institute in Bristol. He arrived in Bristol before the age of 20.

On this journey, in 1798, Davy witnessed the celebrations for Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile. These were interesting times politically: there were riots and much government repression. At Bristol, Davy joined a vibrant group of literary intellectuals and medical practitioners, such as the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the author of the thesaurus (and physician) Peter Mark Roget.

Making science accessible

It was at Bristol that Davy decided to trial breathing nitrous oxide, a gas thought to be fatal. In what seems a remarkably foolhardy exercise to us today, Davy discovered that not only could nitrous oxide be breathed, it also offered euphoric effects. Robert Southey, who would become Poet Laureate in 1813, said: “Davy has invented a new pleasure for which language has no name.” Davy also noted that intense physical pain was lessened when breathing the gas and suggested its use in surgical experiments. Sadly, this suggestion was not taken up for many decades after Davy’s recommendation but nitrous oxide did eventually become an important anaesthetic.

In 1801, Davy moved to London to take up a position at the Royal Institution of Great Britain and it was there that he made his name. He isolated more chemical elements than any other individual has before or since using the new science of electro-chemistry. He is credited with the isolation of nine chemical elements, including sodium and potassium. His lectures established the Royal Institution’s reputation for excellent and accessible lectures on science, which continue today in their Christmas Lecture series.

It was also in London that he first received a call from coal mine owners in the northeast of England and he set to work on a miners’ safety lamp. While there were other lamps created at the same time, arguably the “Davy lamp” is the best known. He wrote poems about his lamp just as he wrote poems describing what it felt like to breathe nitrous oxide:

Not in the ideal dreams of wild desire,

Have I beheld a rapture wakening form,

My bosom burns with no unhallowed fire,

Yet is my cheek with rosy blushes warm.

Poetry was for him a way to express emotions, thoughts and feelings which had no place in his scientific writings. That said, the books he published could describe chemical experiments in a distinctly poetic language. Coleridge said that he went to Davy’s lectures to increase the number of metaphors that he could use in his poems.

Davy’s career asks us to rethink the fixed categories we sometimes use when considering science and the arts. The edition of letters that we are publishing reveals the true variety of topics on which Davy wrote and commented. Davy was at the vanguard of science communicators. And with his love of language and poetry he showed that it was possible to understand and be passionate about both science and the arts in equal measure.