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The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
A riveting history of the men and women whose discoveries and inventions at the end of the eighteenth century gave birth to the Romantic Age of Science.
When young Joseph Banks stepped onto a Tahitian beach in 1769, he hoped to discover Paradise. Inspired by the scientific ferment sweeping through Britain, the botanist had sailed with Captain Cook on his first Endeavour voyage in search of new worlds. Other voyages of discovery—astronomical, chemical, poetical, philosophical—swiftly follow in Richard Holmes’s original evocation of what truly emerges as an Age of Wonder.
Brilliantly conceived as a relay of scientific stories, The Age of Wonder investigates the earliest ideas of deep time and space, and the explorers of “dynamic science,” of an infinite, mysterious Nature waiting to be discovered. Three lives dominate the book: William Herschel and his sister Caroline, whose dedication to the study of the stars forever changed the public conception of the solar system, the Milky Way, and the meaning of the universe; and Humphry Davy, who, with only a grammar school education stunned the scientific community with his near-suicidal gas experiments that led to the invention of the miners’ lamp and established British chemistry as the leading professional science in Europe. This age of exploration extended to great writers and poets as well as scientists, all creators relishing in moments of high exhilaration, boundary-pushing and discovery.
Holmes’s extraordinary evocation of this age of wonder shows how great ideas and experiments—both successes and failures—were born of singular and often lonely dedication, and how religious faith and scientific truth collide. He has written a book breathtaking in its originality, its storytelling energy, and its intellectual significance.
||July 14, 2009|
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109 of 114 found the following review helpful:
Just Before the Golden Age of Victorian ScienceSep 08, 2009
By Ronald H. Clark
I have found the history of British science to be one of the best ways to study the intellectual history of the 19th century. This book, which focuses upon the period between Captain Cook's first voyage in 1768 and Darwin's Beagle journey in 1831,takes the story of British science back a bit earlier, and explains some of the important precursor developments to the later dazzling Victorian period. If that was all it did, that would be plenty for the author has written a fine scientific history. But the book is far richer than even this accomplishment for it seeks to establish ties between science and the British Romantics, surprisingly demonstrating that not only did Romantic poets and painters not run away from science, some of them embraced and even engaged in it. Along the way, the profession of scientific researcher emerged as well as some of our basic ideas about scientific progress.
The narrative is built around a series of significant individuals, for whom the author creates scientific biographies. The first is Joseph Banks (1743-1820) who became the godfather of British science during this period from his post as President of the Royal Society. One of the major sciences that underwent development during this period was astronomy; several chapters are devoted to the pathbreaking work of William Herschel (who discovered Uranus) and his sister Carolyn who pioneered new developments and telescopic designs. In the process their work turned the attention of artists to the skies and the evolutin of universe. A chapter catches the excitement of early balloonists and the Romantic wake they left behind as they explored the skies. Exploration was anordsother feature of the period, and was encouraged by Banks who had been on Cook's first voyage to the South Pacific. Mungo Park (1771-1806) anchors a chapter on this, and his tragic disappearance (as well as many other African explorers) reminds us how overwhelming a challenge African exploration presented during this period. Chemistry was another of the major sciences that took off during this period, as demonstrated in the fascinating activities of Humphry Davy (1778-1829), who pioneered in studying gases, electro-chemical analysis, agricultural chemistry, and became a great popularizer of scientific developments. The author frequently links up scientific developments with poetry, with Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, and Tennyson all making appearances, some supportive others not, and with painters whose portrayals of balloons and scientific breakthroughs conveyed the excitement of the period. Davy himself wrote poetry which he recorded in his lab books along with experimental data.
Many of these scientific developments seemed to challenge traditional religious views and raised new philosophical issues. I found the discussion of "Dr Frankenstein and the Soul" highly interesting. The "Vitalism debate" of 1816-22 centered on the issue of whether there was a life force at work, despite scientific scepticism. Naturphilosohie, a form of scientific mysticism, arose to challenge materialistic interpretations of life. The author does a fine job in explaining how Mary Shelley's novel pictured scientists as being potentially dangerous and raised fundamental issues about the human soul. By the 1830's the British Association for the Advancement of Science is launched and we are on the cusp of the "golden age of Victorian science."
The author seems equally at home in science or poetry and art, having written extensively on Coleridge. The book includes a large number of breathtaking color plates which help the reader grasp what the narrative is discussing. The research is impeccable, with 27 pages of notes, a 12-page cast list of mini-biographies of anyone mentioned in the text, and an 11-page bibliography broken down by topic. Poetry is not my thing. Nonetheless, i found this book to be incredibly rich in ideas and perceptive analysis. A rare bird to be sure.
33 of 38 found the following review helpful:
Wonderful Age of WonderAug 05, 2009
By Charles E. Brown Jr.
This is a marvelous book, depicting an era where scientific work was far different than it is now. One did not need years of training or huge government investment to make a major discovery back then, but rather hard work and ingenuity. As an example, an amateur like William Hershel, a composer and instrument-maker could become the greatest astronomer of his generation. What's more, the discoveries were intelligible to all educated men of the time and could affect the arts, as we see from scientific comments of writers such as Samuel Johnson, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley. Who would ever have known that the author of the RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER also coined the word "psychosomatic" and may have coined the word "scientist"? The writer of this book did.
15 of 16 found the following review helpful:
Chronicling the transition from natural philosophy to scienceNov 28, 2009
By James Donnelley
I loved this book. For me it captured some sense of the transition from "natural philosophy" (thinking about and speculating about nature) to science (making careful observations and weaving those observations into theories of nature). I loved how Richard Holmes brought some of the people involved in this transition to life. The role of Joseph Banks, the relationship between William and Caroline and John Herschel and many, many more delightful insights into the people who influenced the transition to scientific thought.
Here's a quote from John Herschel in the book that to me captures some of the sense of the Age of Wonder:
"To the natural philosopher there is no natural object unimportant or trifling...A mind that has once imbibed a taste for scientific enquiry has within itself an inexhaustible source of pure and exciting contemplations. One would think that Shakespeare had such a mind in view when he describes a contemplative man finding:
Tongues in trees - books in the running brooks
Sermons in stones - and good in everything
Where the uninformed and unenquiring eye perceives neither novelty nor beauty, he walks in the midst of wonders."
I know we all have our particular tastes, but this was for me the best book I've read - on any topic.
14 of 15 found the following review helpful:
what a wonderful bookAug 23, 2009
By J. Daly
Brilliant job--a great topic, excellent writing, everything you want in a book. Don't be set off by the length. It is an easy read.
I am fascinated by the history of science and technology. This book is a must for those interested in a broad overview of the time period covered. Davy, those wonderful and crazy fellows with air balloons, the voyages to the Pacific to explore....and so on. A real delight is how the author eemplifies what CP Snow alluded to as two cultures---science and the humanities. In this book they find one another. There's even some hints of sex...scientists and sex--what a tease!
Just as important as its relevancy is the writing. This is a gifted author. His writing flows effortless, it is punctuated with pithy observations (e.g., the author must have had a great time visiting the homes and neighborhoods of many of the main characters--how poignant that most are still there but not even celebrated for what happened there).
The book made me wish that we might still have individual greatness in the sciences, that we had something akin to a singular scientific academy like the one that existed in those days. Perhaps a hundred years from now humans will be able to recognize, like this author, the important social, literary, and scientific currents that flow through today. I hope so.
88 of 112 found the following review helpful:
Romantic science?Sep 01, 2009
By James-philip Harries
"none of the above"
What's Romantic science? Fear not, there's no discussion of the particularity, it's just science.
Richard Holmes is a celebrated biographer of the romantic poets. Here he turns his attention to the scientific geniuses of the age. Beautifully written as ever, it is only when you finish the book that you'll start to have doubts.
Was Astronomer Royal Maskelyne as fluffy a bunny as here he appears? (in Dava Sobel's viewLongitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time he was the very picture of the selfish machiavellian bureaucrat)
Why is there a long chapter on (mostly French) ballooning which even Holmes (nice pun) describes as "something of a scientific cul-de-sac"?
Why is Shelley so prominent? He never met any of the principals of this book (Banks, Herschel, Davy).
Is the selection of scientific geniuses a bit skewed? Nothing about medicine, little about geology, metallurgy, biology - and as for practical progress based on science like manufacturing and engineering, forget about it.
Do Davy's poems merit pages and pages? Might we not appreciate some laboratory notes?
The illustrations are nice, but why so many poets, especially the standard views of them?
This book on reflection seems to be a bit of a grab bag of discards from the author's researches in the romantic age. To be fair, Holmes has mastered the science as it appeared then. He could probably even explain the nuances of the phlogiston / oxygen debate. But he has not written a comprehensive history of Romantic science. He has written well, though. You'll enjoy this book.
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