Experimenting with Laughing Gas

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The writer Richard Holmes has a gift for spinning stories.  The Age of Wonder is a cinematic romp through late 18th and early 19th century Britain and the amazing scientific breakthroughs of that era. We meet a brother-sister team of astronomers who discover comets and a new planet (Uranus!). And Holmes 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, but they'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 air some other gems from his conversation with Kurt.  In this bit of rescued tape, Holmes tells the story of chemist Humphrey Davy’s experiments with nitrous oxide (a.k.a. laughing gas). It's a wild tale of how the scientist convinced friends — like the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Mark Roget — to be human guinea pigs. 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."

Fortunately Coleridge managed 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: