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

by Richard Holmes

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Showing 1-5 of 42 (next | show all)
Kind of book that makes literacy worthwhile. There are still things to learn about the world, about the universe and about the people who have mapped, explored,discovered it.The stories of Herschel and Davy stand out. Davy i knew of, of course, his experiments with laughing gas and invention of the lamp, but how he invented the lamp, how he stopped short of really discovering anaesthetics, how he wrote poetry and was a tortured soul (difficult relationship with his society wife and with his protege Faraday). Herschel was just a name to me, but he really matters; a self-made genius who spent the early part of his life as an accomplished musician, a German who fled his oppressive family to come to England, made all his own instruments, was assisted by his feisty spinster sister who became a recognised astronomer in her own right (the first woman ever) and not only discovered and mapped the heavens like never before but created the basics of our current sense of the universe, its vast scale and age. And then there's Mungo Park, the pioneers of ballooning, Joseph Banks and a few more thrown in, all told with human insight, humour, scientific detail and even a bit sexy here and there. Indeed a wonder. ( )
  vguy | Mar 7, 2015 |
My interest in the History of Science began with reading biographies of famous scientists like Faraday and Edison when I was not yet a teenager. This interest was intensified by college reading of Arthur Koestler, Loren Eiseley and others, and has continued to this day. Richard Holmes fine volume, The Age of Wonder, brings that interest together with my love of literature. In his prologue he describes the book as "a relay race of scientific stories". That it is and more, combining the literary milieu of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the increasingly wonderful scientific discoveries and enterprises from the voyages of Captain James Cook through the crossing of the English Channel by balloon through excursions into the study of gases and electricity, ending with the first voyage of Charles Darwin.

The cast of characters is too numerous to list, but includes geniuses of science from William Herschel to Humphrey Davy and on to Michael Faraday and other discoverers. The episodes include the discovery of the planet Uranus by Herschel and his sister, the study of Tahitian culture by Joseph Banks, the "vitalist" movement that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, the practical development of safe lamps for coal miners by Davy, and other momentous moments of wonder that are still of importance to us today. Making his stories more interesting is the influence and intersection of science with literature as evidenced by the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, and others including Davy himself. He does not ignore the interaction with scientists from the continent like Lavoisier, Ritter, Baron Cuvier, and Goethe. Also present is the importance of the influence of philosophers, especially the Germans like Kant, both via the writings of Coleridge and through the readings of the scientists themselves.

It was an age when scientists were still considered philosophers, even masters of the humanities. This is seen in the musical creations of Herschel and the poetic charms of Davy; not to mention the writing abilities of all of them including explorers like Captain Cook with his journals of Pacific voyages, and Mungo Park whose journal of his explorations in Africa are a great read to this day. It was also an age when the foundations of some of our greatest twentieth century scientific developments were laid by men like Charles Babbage, the mathematician who invented "difference engines" (we call them computers today).

The combination of Holmes' superb writing style with fascinating stories, many unfamiliar even to a reader like myself, and with the suspense of voyages and scientific advances that seem to happen an increasing pace makes it understandable why this book was the recipient of multiple awards. I would recommend this to all readers who look at the night sky and wonder about the mysteries of nature and the universe. ( )
  jwhenderson | Jan 31, 2015 |
Once upon a time, long, long ago, I was pretty fascinated with science. I thought about being pre-med. I got my highest SAT score in Chemistry. Then I was hit in the face with higher mathematics which made absolutely no sense to me and included intensively long calculations and logarithmic tables and slide rules -- this was a few years before students actually were encouraged, and then required to buy calculators. That was it -- I did my math/science requirements in college by taking botany, psychology and physical science for liberal arts majors. Botany was somewhat interesting, but I could never really see through a microscope; the psychology professor was a sadist who insisted on all kinds of statistical analysis (thank god I had a boyfriend who was a psych major and got me through the labs); and phys sci was a bore. Obviously, I became an English major and never took another science course again. Had there been a course offered in the history of science and had Richard Holmes' splendid book, The Age of Wonder been one of the textbooks, I might have been inspired to complement my literary studies with some scientific studies.

Holmes presents the unfolding of the experimental world of applied science in England contemporary with the outpouring of Romantic literature from the 1780s to the 1830s. The Age of Wonder is wonderful cultural history combined with scientific biography. The biographical focuses of the book are William Herschel, the astronomer and microscope builder, who discovered the planet Uranus and the moons of Saturn; Humphrey Davy, whose experiments and discoveries in electricity and chemistry revolutionized the scientific world; and Sir Joseph Banks, who as a young man sailed around the world with Captain Cook, wrote an anthropological study of the Tahitians, and returned to England to become the longtime President of the Royal Society, encouraging and sponsoring a variety of scientific ventures (and literary ones -- he sponsored lecture series by Coleridge).

It's an age of the popularization of science with Davy and others giving wildly popular public demonstrations of their experiments and books being written for a general readership and even children about the new scientific principles being discovered. Man flies for the first time in hot air and hydrogen balloons -- the earth is seen from above and meteorology is born. Clouds become the focus for scientists as well as poets. William Herschel's sister Caroline uses her own telescope to discover comets and meteors and is paid by the crown to assist her brother in his sky-sweeping. Earth, air, fire and water are no longer the basic components of the universe -- it is discovered that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen; air has various elemental gases; the earth is wildly complex, and fire is not an element at all, but a means of transforming one form of matter into another. One of the burning philosophical and scientific issues is the nature of life itself -- can it be captured in some sort of essential form -- what role does electricity play in the vital force of life??

Holmes' earlier books are biographies of Enlightenment and Romantic literary figures -- Dr. Johnson, Shelley, and Coleridge. He integrates his wide range of knowledge about the Romantic authors and their interest in science, as well as their incorporation of scientific ideas and discoveries into their literary works, into The Age of Wonder. This is a fascinating and revelatory work about the culture of early 19th c. England and Europe. ( )
8 vote janeajones | Feb 13, 2014 |
I may return to this in future. I enjoy reading about early scientific discoveries, and the book has a strong narrative to provide for some lively reading. Unfortunately, I have found my attention waning on most books I have started in the past few months. It's no distinction that this book simply hasn't compelled me to finish it, but it is a distinction that I still hope it will. Even if I don't come back to it, the first section on Joseph Banks and his trip to Tahiti was pretty rewarding in itself, so I'm glad to have read it.
  phredfrancis | Feb 8, 2014 |
The first time since High School I've had more than glancing contact with the physical sciences... and it kicked ass. ( )
  Brendan.H | Jul 21, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 42 (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
First words
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.… (more)

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