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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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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. ( )
4 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 |
Excellent book, wonderfully written about innovative scientists of the early1800s. The middle is a bit sagging, but it's worth reading to the end for the summing up and reading about the newly emerging at that time opinions about scientists, including the coinage of that term, not to mention the disruption of earlier religious and philosophical beliefs because of the revelations of geology and astronomy.

This book is perfect for any lover of the Patrick O'Brian books, as it features the irrepressible Joseph Banks throughout, not to mention the Herschels, who were an amazing family. It ends with a youthful Darwin, pointing out that "with the growing public knowledge of geology and astronomy, and the recognition of 'deep space' and 'deep time', fewer and fewer men of women of education can have believed in a literal, Biblical six days of creation. However, science itself had yet to produce its own theory (or myth) of creation, and there was no alternative Newtonian Book of Genesis--as yet. That is why Darwin's On The Origin of Species appeared so devastating when it was finally published in 1859. It was not that it reduced the six days of Biblical creation to myth: this had already been largely done by Lyell and the geologists. What it demonstrated was that there was no need for a divine creation at all."

Also the author makes an impassioned, important plea: "We need to consider how [scientists] are increasingly vital to any culture of progressive knowledge, to education...., and to the understanding of the planet and its future. For this, I believe, science needs to be presented and explored in a new way. We need not only a history of science, but a more enlarged and imaginative biographical writing about individual scientists. Here the perennially cited difficulties with the 'two cultures', and specifically with mathematics, can no longer be accepted as a valid limitation. We need to understand how science is actually made; how scientists themselves think and feel and speculate. We need to explore what makes scientists creative, as well as poets or painters, or musicians." ( )
  lxydis | May 11, 2013 |
This very good book describes science and leading scientists in the UK in the romantic era (roughly 1770 to 1830) with a not entirely successful attempt to highlight the links between the literary and scientific worlds. The scientific part of the book has similarities to Lisa Jardine's Ingenious Pursuits telling of 17th century science in England.
The slightly clunky attempt to bring the science and literary worlds together is saved by the author's extensive knowledge of both worlds and his generous approach to the foibles of the people and the times, and his eye for humour.
Read April 2013. ( )
  mbmackay | Apr 20, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 40 (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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"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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