Experimenting with Laughing Gas

Studio 360

The writer Richard Holmes has a gift for spinning stories. The Age of Wonder is a cinematic romp throughlate 18th and early 19th centuryBritain and the amazing scientific breakthroughs of that era. We meet a brother-sister team of astronomers who discover comets anda new planet (Uranus!).AndHolmes keeps us in suspense describing the first hot air balloon race across the English Channel.Each chapter is like a cribsheet for a Jules Verne novel, butthey're all true.

A caricature by British satirist and cartoonist James Gillray (1757-1815) of experiments with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) at the Royal Institution. Humphry Davy is working the bellows.

Holmes told a few of these stories on last weekend's show, but we didn't have time to airsomeother gems from hisconversationwith Kurt.In thisbit of rescuedtape, Holmes tells the story of chemistHumphrey Davy's experiments with nitrous oxide (a.k.a. laughing gas). It's a wild tale of how the scientistconvinced friends --- like thepoet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Mark Roget --- to be human guineapigs.Ironically enough, Roget (the future creator of Roget's Thesaurus) had trouble picking words to describe his experience: "I felt myself totally incapable of speaking."

FortunatelyColeridgemanaged to rustle up some impressions, describing the gas's effect as "a highly pleasurable sensation of warmth over my whole frame, resembling what I remember once to have experienced after returning from a walk in the snow into a warm room." Indeed!

You can hear more tales of the "age of romantic science" here: