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The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic…

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

by Richard Holmes

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Showing 1-5 of 52 (next | show all)
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 River in 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. ( )
  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 |
This is a fascinating account of the growth of science in Romantic Age of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Holmes looks at the period through the lives of ground-breaking scientists, and illuminates the intersections between science, literature, and art during the period.

Among the scientists discussed in detail are Joseph Banks, William and Caroline Herschel, Humphrey Davy, Michael Faraday, and a collection of truly nutty but ground-breaking (or is that, and ground-breaking) balloonists.

One of the most engaging aspects of science in this period is that it was all new enough that any smart, interested person with some (not necessarily large) resources could potentially make an important contribution. Joseph Banks was educated as a botanist, and made one of his greatest contributions with detailed and insightful anthropological observations of the Tahitians. William Herschel was trained as a musician, and his sister Caroline barely educated at all; they became prominent astronomers who made major contributions to the study of the heavens. Michael Faraday was a bookseller who was hired by Humphrey Davy as a lab assistant. Some of these men were born wealthy; some were not. None started out on the path where they made their greatest contributions.

Joseph Banks accompanied James Cook on the first of his voyages to the south Pacific, as a naturalist, the same role in which Charles Darwin later sailed on the HMS Beagle. A major purpose of that voyage was to observe an eclipse of the sun that would be visible in Tahiti. While Banks did a great deal of botany while he was in Tahiti, he also made extensive and detailed observations of the Tahitians, differing from most of his fellow British by being open to--indeed, becoming deeply involved in, the Tahitian culture. Initially friendly relations with the Tahitians soured as Cook and others, unable or unwilling to let go of their own preconceptions, repeatedly offended them. After they left Tahiti, the voyage deteriorated further, with conflicts, epidemic illness, and death. The survivors, including Cook and Banks, arrived back in Britain devastated and took months to recover. Still a young man at this point, Banks was at the beginning of his career, and remained a major force in British science for decades to come--but less as a scientist himself, rather as the president of the Royal Society, guiding and encouraging the scientific careers of others.

With Banks' story setting the framework, we see the Herschels start out as a musician and his singer/housekeeper sister and become two of the most important astronomers of the age, Davy beginning as a medical student and transforming into a chemist and engineer, and then into a mystical, visionary writer. We see the beginnings of true specialization in science, and the founding of the first subject-specialized science professional associations, separate from the Royal Society, which had, and still sought, to encompass them all. We see, also, the connections and interactions between the scientists and the writers and artists of the age, including Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats.

It's a fascinating story, and I promise I have not even scratched the surface of it. Holmes seeks to reveal character as well as accomplishments, and show the ways in which the romantic sensibility, which we generally thing of as antithetical to science, in fact inspired and encouraged the Romantic Age scientists.

Highly recommended.

I borrowed this book from the local library. ( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
A fascinating history of pre-Victorian British science, its connections with Romanticism and the poets of that era, its preparation of the ground for the Victorian sciencs and hence for modern science. Thoughtful but approachble writing. ( )
  dasam | Jun 21, 2018 |
I really enjoyed this one. In The Age Of Wonder Richard Holmes creates a fascinating multi-biography of some of the greatest scientists of the 18th century. Each biography is unique in its own way, but there is a common thread, lead by Joseph Banks, that ties all threads into one complete story of scientific advancement in Britain during the 18th century. I found this a riveting, moving, educational and ultimately a wondrous read.

One can tell Holmes cares deeply about his cast of characters. The reader will celebrate the successes and lament the failures of each individual. Life's trials and tribulations are laid to bear, and ultimately, their legacies are examined. For me, the most memorable characters are: Joseph Banks and his journeys with Captain Cook to the Southern Pacific islands and Brazil. William Herschel and his sister Caroline building revolutionary telescopes, discovering new nebula and planets, and advancing daring new theories of deep space and multiple galaxies outside of the Milky Way. Humphrey Davy exploring the properties of laughing gas, inventing a safety lamp for desperate miners, and ultimately revolutionizing the science of Chemistry. And, finally, this cast wouldn't be complete without multiple, intrepid Hot Air/Hydrogen Balloonists risking it all for science and thrills.

Throughout, Holmes is careful to show the intersection between the humanities and science during this time. Painters, authors, poets and musicians were all inspired by the revolutionary scientific discoveries of the time, and their work clearly shows that inspiration. Holmes gives many examples of this ranging from the poetry of John Keats to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant to Shelly's Frankenstein.

In his epilogue, Holmes sums it up best: "...it seems to me impossible to understand fully the contemporary debates about the environment, or climate change, or genetic engineering, or alternative medicine, or extraterrestrial life, or the nature of consciousness, or even the existence of God, without knowing how those arose from the hopes and anxieties of the Romantic Generation."

Highly Recommended

( )
  Mitchell_Bergeson_Jr | Aug 6, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 52 (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.… (more)

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