I wonder often how disappointed people were when, in 1783, scientists and inventors collaborated to launch the first hot-air balloons heavenward. What was the reaction on the ground when the manned balloons returned with no news of angels, spirits, or gods dwelling in the glorious clouds? How to report that no, great grandma wasn't up there like we thought?
What brings these questions to mind is a marvelous book by Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. One chapter chronicles the fantastical, scientific, and often hilarious aerial experiments designed to get man air-borne in lighter-than-air contraptions. Paris and London were the centers of the experiments--ones involving paper-makers, chemists, doctors, infantry officers, eccentrics, and gondolas full of scientific instruments, champagne, cold chicken, and buxom women in low-cut outfits to swell the already enormous crowds that gathered for the ascension.
Holmes stories of the late18th-century and early 19th-century balloon craze are well told and balanced between the mad-cap adventures and real scientific missions sponsored by the French Academie des Sciences and the English Royal Academy. Balloon ascents were consider key to discovering the secret of flight, the nature of the upper atmosphere, and the formation of weather.
Holmes writes that ballooning drew attention to the clouds--to their "seasonal varieties and characteristics, and above all perhaps to their astonishing beauty." The Romantic preoccupation with clouds can be followed in the paintings of Turner and Constable and in the poetry of Coleridge and Shelley, Holmes notes. What is fascinating is that, according to Holmes, ballooning produced not a new vision of the heavens as much as it did a new vision of the earth. "The early astronauts suddenly saw the earth as a giant organism, mysteriously patterned and unfolding, like a living creature...It was comparable to the first views of the earth from space by the Apollo astronauts in the 1960s, producing a new concept of a 'single blue planet' with its delicate membrane of atmosphere."
So, while I am digging for the story of how "the church" responded to these discoveries, I leave you with this, from cartoonist Roz Chast.