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

by Richard Holmes

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2,587615,361 (4.06)166
"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 60 (next | show all)
Here's what I wrote on 2010 about this read: "Different type of read for me. The almost-reads-like-a-novel story of British scientists and poets of the Romantic Era. Great history of Banks, who visited Tahiti and lead the Royal Society of Scientists (although they weren't named that yet), William Hershel, the German refugee who discovered Urananus and his sister, Caroline, who discovered massive numbers of comets. Then there's Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein during this period. Others as well; very engaging and educational read!" ( )
  MGADMJK | Aug 17, 2023 |
The Age of Wonder started out wonderfully ! The discussions on the explorations of Tahiti & Africa, as well as the advent of Hot Air Balloon Travel and the telescopic exploration of the heavens, were fascinating ! The scientist in these chapters were all driven, dedicated, and determined to increase mankinds' knowledge on all things relating to the natural world. But half way through the book, the author started focusing on the in fighting amongst the new generation of upcoming scientist, and at this point the book really bogged down and unfortunately, I found myself just plain loosing interest ( )
  kevinkevbo | Jul 14, 2023 |
There are a few figures who sit squarely at the center of the British Romantic scientific revolution: Joseph Banks, William Herschel, and Humphry Davy. While Banks was more of an adventurer and advocate than a scientist, Herschel (astronomy) and Davy (chemistry) made their mark by exploring the composition of forms perceived by our senses. Herschel designed and built telescopes that could see further in the cosmos. While he made some technical breakthroughs in scanning the night sky and documenting celestial phenomena, his telescopes were better because he put in the work of polishing larger mirrors. He also had an equally brilliant and industrious assistant, his sister Caroline, who of course did not receive her due for her contribution to the field.

While Herschel gathered observational data to better understand the formation of the universe, Davy pioneered research in chemistry - along with his peers on the continent, he made great strides in our understanding of the elemental composition of the world. These "natural philosophers" were autodidacts and interdisciplinary: they were friends with Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth.

The author's narrative history of this period is fascinating, and he explains how some myths surrounding scientific discovery dovetail with Romantic ideals of the mind and nature, especially as found in the poetry and fiction of the Shelleys. ( )
  jonbrammer | Jul 1, 2023 |
Richard Holmes's history of scientific discovery in the Romantic age is told through the biographies of several of its key figures, such as Joseph Banks, William Herschel and Humphrey Davy. It focuses on science (and literature) in Britain but does not neglect scientists elsewhere in Europe. One of the things that fascinated me was learning from this book that dialogue, cooperation and rivalry continued throughout the Napoleonic Wars. Another unique feature of the book is that Holmes examines the interest and scientific experiments of key literary figures like Shelley and Coleridge. Mary Shelley gets an entire chapter devoted to her novel "Frankenstein" and the scientific controversies and debates which informed the author. ( )
  nmele | Sep 2, 2022 |
Bibliography: p. 485. Includes index.
  TorontoOratorySPN | Sep 1, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 60 (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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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)
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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