Humphry Davy – The Age of Aspiration

At a time when science plays a major role in our lives, I had been looking at a period when science, and chemistry in particular, began to lose the shackles of magic and alchemy and started to entwine itself in our evolution. 

The Cornish chemist Humphry Davy was part of that era and noticed the potential that science has to revolutionise our lives. Davy described chemistry as a science relating to the intimate actions of ‘bodies’ upon each other, by which appearances can be altered and individuality compromised.  He was talking in micro detail about elements and particles.  But on a more macro level he reflected that in order to assess the effects of chemistry on the human mind we should examine the parallel history of society and civilisation to trace any resulting progress or improvement.

Davy talked of man not being confined by the surface of earth but exploring the oceans and atmospheres for inventions that elicit progress. I find it interesting that science’s central ideology to forever go further, to explore in more detail, develop, advance, to inhale more and delve deeper, is also mirrored by capitalism’s desire to do likewise, to expand more, produce more and consume more.

I see the relationship between science, culture and political movements as constantly fluid and interdependent.  Something changes in one field and the ramifications are felt in the other ‘disciplines’. The acceleration of these changes over time, often allied to new inventions, guides us to where we are now. The good things in life, the bad things and the unfair are all intertwined, as indeed are our cultural and behavioural struggles to keep up with the innovations we create, the resulting inequalities and moral dilemmas. 

What we refer to now as the 1st Industrial Revolution was linked inextricably with the development of chemistry, western economic systems and cultural developments. Its legacy is seen in our own 3rd & 4th Industrial Revolutions now.   

Davy was a complex individual, a true polymath who viewed science as an extension of the arts. He was not just a chemist but a poet, an esteemed lecturer, a philosopher, writer, and even a painter. And his views on the world and its politics seem to be as fluid as his scientific and cultural interests.  

This work tries to reflect some of the breadth of his work.  Different texts are often layered simultaneously, sometimes they are specifically scientific and at other times focused on the historic context. There are ‘factual’ texts, such as Davy’s notated results of experimentation, and there are his poetic, philosophical ruminations including those on the decay of the human body and decay of empires. There are also reminders of some of the pressing issues of his day, including Wilberforce’s famous abolition speech to the House of Commons. I hope this constant  intertwining shows how the ramifications of that era are still with us now.

‘The Age of Aspiration’ was premiered at Truro Cathedral on 20 November 2021 performed by the Three Spires Choir and Orchestra to celebrate their 40th anniversary.  The performance was conducted by Christopher Gray and the soloists were Rory McLeery and Samuel West.