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The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and…

by Richard Holmes

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2,232554,928 (4.07)155
"The Age of Wonder" explores the earliest ideas of deep time and space, and the explorers of "dynamic science": an infinite, mysterious Nature waiting to be discovered. Three lives dominate the book: William Herschel, his sister Caroline, and Humphry Davy.
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Showing 1-5 of 54 (next | show all)
This is the most interesting non-fiction book I've read in years. It is a series of mini-biographies tying together to form a portrait of the scientific world at the turn of the 19th century. The portions about Sir Humphrey Davey were especially interesting. ( )
  Rachel_Hultz | Aug 15, 2020 |
Would have given it at least four stars after the first half but the second kind of slowed the pace. A little in awe of how much poetry and literature he included (which is also why the pace started to drag). ( )
1 vote carliwi | Sep 23, 2019 |
Biographies of some important figures of British-adjacent science at the end of the eighteenth century, including their perspectives on the relationship of science to the humanities. If you really enjoy reading about the eighteenth century, this is good; it was nice to learn about the German immigrant astronomer Caroline Herschel, whose discoveries were significant and celebrated in her day along with those of her brother William, despite his far greater opportunities. ( )
1 vote rivkat | Aug 16, 2019 |
An insightful, detailed history of the "second scientific revolution", from about the 1760s to the 1830s, as covered here. Besides the wealth of knowledge presented, the means of presentation also hooked me. Within are in-depth biographies of the men, and significantly a few women, whose ground-breaking pursuits help define the era.

The first chapter, "Joseph Banks in Paradise", is great, portraying not only his botanical exploits while aboard Cook's 1st expedition, but his curiosity about the humans he meets, their customs, sexual practices, etc. which "demanded a new science of explanation" (and thus, anthropology is born). On we go to Chapter 2, "Herschel on the Moon", about Wilhelm (William) Herschel's - and his stargazing sister Caroline's - remarkable emergence from meager roots in Hanover, Germany, to find inspiration in England as the premier astronomer(s) of the era. His determination to build large reflector telescopes, and the wonders he discovers, makes this chapter worth the price of admission alone, for me.

The book also pitch-perfectly chronicles the earliest attempts at ballooning, one of the first exhibited described as "enormous, a monster; seventy feet high, and gloriously decorated in blue, with golden mythological figures." He helps us imagine what a spectacle this must have been above the Seine in Paris, 1783. The most detailed biography here is of Sir Humphrey Davy, polymath and incredibly audacious experimenter, who made great inroads in chemistry. This was my intro to a remarkable mind. Romantic poets of the period are given liberal attention, given how influenced many were by the fascinating discoveries of the day. Davy was himself an author, and we also read excerpts from Samuel Coleridge (Holmes is his biographer). Mary Shelley rightly gets her own chapter, "Dr Frankenstein and the Soul".

Terrific reading. Very immersive. Anglocentric, but justifiably. It goes quite long, though I fairly raced through it. Recommended for anyone interested in a truly wondrous period. ( )
1 vote ThoughtPolice | Jan 5, 2019 |
Circumnavigation of the globe, the sighting of Uranus, balloon flight, James Banks in Tahiti, William Herschel in deep space, Mungo Park in Africa, Humphry Davy in his lab conducting wild experiments with Coleridge, Southey and co.--this is the Age of Wonder. Terrific exploration of the daring scientific pursuit in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that inspired the Romantics. ( )
  beaujoe | Nov 11, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 54 (next | show all)
In his radiant new book, "The Age of Wonder," Holmes treats us to the amazing lives of the pioneering sailors and balloonists, astronomers and chemists of the Romantic era. Making good on the book's subtitle, he takes us on a dazzling tour of their chaotic British observatories and fatal explorations in African jungles, showing us "how the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science."
added by fannyprice | editSalon (Aug 10, 2009)
 
In this big two-hearted river of a book, the twin energies of scientific curiosity and poetic invention pulsate on every page. Richard Holmes, the pre-eminent biographer of the Romantic generation and the author of intensely intimate lives of Shelley and Coleridge, now turns his attention to what Coleridge called the “second scientific revolution,” when British scientists circa 1800 made electrifying discoveries to rival those of Newton and Galileo. In Holmes’s view, “wonder”-driven figures like the astronomer William Herschel, the chemist Humphry Davy and the explorer Joseph Banks brought “a new imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work” and “produced a new vision which has rightly been called Romantic science.”
 
Richard Holmes aims to debunk the popular image ("myth" is his word) that the Romantic era was inherently "anti-scientific." Indeed, he argues, it was an era in which science was remarkably transformed by the spirit of the age. . . . [He] endeavors to dramatize how the "Romantic Generation" -- bracketed by Capt. James Cook's first voyage around the world in 1768 and Darwin's embarkation for the Galapagos Islands in 1831 -- achieved what amounted to a "second scientific revolution" (Coleridge's term), forever altering the course of scientific investigation. . . .

Mr. Holmes perhaps overstates the discontinuity between "Romantic science" and what came before and after, but he is right to stress the novel tone that insinuated itself into the project of science at the end of the 18th century. And he is right to seize the expeditions of discovery as chronological markers. It was a moment in which bold explorations -- cosmological as well as geographical -- changed our understanding of the world.
 
A writer's skill can make a lost world live, and Richard Holmes does that here. Like Davy's gas, The Age of Wonder gives us a whole set of "newly connected and newly modified ideas", a new model for scientific exploration and poetic expression in the Romantic period. Informative and invigorating, generous and beguiling, it is, indeed, wonderful.
added by kidzdoc | editThe Guardian, Jenny Uglow (Oct 11, 2008)
 
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Epigraph
Two things fill my mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the more often and persistently I reflect upon them: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me...I see them in front of me and unite them immediately with the consciousness of my own existence.

Immanuel Kant, 'Critique of practical reason' (1788)
He thought about himself, and the whole Earth,
Of Man the wonderful, and of the stars
And how the deuce they ever could have birth:
And then he thought of Earthquakes, and of Wars,
How many miles the Moon might have in girth,
Of Air-balloons, and of many bars
To perfect knowledge of the boundless Skies;
And then he thought of Donna Julia's eyes.

Byron, 'Don Juan' (1819), Canto 1, stanza 92
Those to whom the harmonious doors
Of Science have unbarred celestial stores...

William Wordsworth, 'Lines additional to an evening walk' (1794)
Nothing is so fatal to the progress of the human mind as to suppose our views of science re ultimate; that there are no mysteries in nature; that our triumphs are complete; and that there are no new worlds to conquer.

Humphry Davy, lecture (1810)
I shall attack chemistry, like a shark.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, letter (1810)
Dedication
To Jon Cook at Radio Flatlands
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In my first chemistry class, at the age of fourteen, I successfully precipitated a single crystal of mineral salts.  (Prologue)
On 13 April 1769, young Joseph Banks, official botanist to HM Bark Endeavour, first clapped eyes on the island of Tahiti, 17 degrees South, 149 degrees West.
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Not the military historian Richard Holmes
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"The Age of Wonder" explores the earliest ideas of deep time and space, and the explorers of "dynamic science": an infinite, mysterious Nature waiting to be discovered. Three lives dominate the book: William Herschel, his sister Caroline, and Humphry Davy.

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