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


I’ll admit I was stunned to learn that the chemist Sir Humphry Davy was so well acquainted with the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth — and furthermore to find them all collegially botanizing, geologizing, analyzing, and versifying through that yeasty interdisciplinary era that Richard Holmes calls the “Age of Wonder.” It was a time defined by two great voyages: James Cook’s passage to Tahiti aboard the Endeavour to observe the 1769 transit of Venus, and the surveying mission of the Beagle, which set out in 1831, carrying the young Charles Darwin to the Galápagos Islands. Within those Romantic six decades, the universe opened wider as William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus and the first balloonists realized the dreams of Icarus.

The author describes his text as “a relay race of scientific stories” that “tries to capture something of the inner life of science, its impact on the heart as well as on the mind.” In this the book succeeds with verve. I didn’t just read The Age of Wonder; I escaped to it, riding happily with its heroes through a blaze of adventures and ideas.

Finally getting to her feet as the balloon floated over Green Park, Mrs. Sage trod on Lunardi’s barometer and broke it, thus depriving Mr. Biggin of any instrument with which to measure their height. Nevertheless, in due course the two of them were lunching peacefully off sparkling Italian wine and cold chicken, occasionally calling to people below through a speaking-trumpet. The flight followed the line of the Thames westwards, at one point passing through a snowstorm (surprising for mid-June, remarked Mr. Biggin nonchalantly ), and landed heavily near Harrow on the Hill, smashing through a hedge and dragging across an unharvested hayfield.

Although Davy and Herschel — and Herschel’s sister Caroline, the comet hunter — are the acknowledged stars of this book, their tales and others are stitched together via the giant personage of Sir Joseph Banks, who won 41 consecutive elections as president of the Royal Society (a string of successes ended only by his death in 1820). We first encounter Banks as a youth, on the decks of the Endeavour. He was “Joseph Banks in Paradise” then, as the title of Chapter 1 describes him, exploring Mother Nature by day and lying with his Tahitian paramour at night. By the end of his life, which comes in Chapter 9, “Sorcerer and Apprentice,” Banks rued the decline of a unified scientific enterprise — not an end to wonder per se, which has not ceased even today, but a channeling of intellects into categories. Commenting on the establishment of the Geological Society in 1807 and the prospect of an Astronomical Society (to come in 1820), he wrote, “I see plainly that all these new-fangled Associations will finally dismantle the Royal Society, and not leave the Old Lady a rag to cover her.”

Did I mention that Davy also knew Walter Scott and Lord Byron? That he wrote his own poetry — in his laboratory notebooks? It wasn’t great poetry (Holmes offers many examples), but then, Davy established the foundation of modern chemistry, ran the Royal Institution, identified the element iodine, isolated potassium and sodium by electrolysis, nearly died of “jail fever” while revising the ventilation system at Newgate Prison, and invented a safety lamp for coal miners that halted a horrific series of fatal explosions.

The Davy Safety Lamp, described as “the greatest public achievement of his career,” spread all over the continent and became the icon on Davy’s coat of arms. His heraldic motto stated, “I built the light which brings safety.” The basic research on methane that Davy undertook at the start of his efforts for the miners led to the fundamental yet counterintuitive discovery that a lamp’s flame fails to pass through a wire mesh. (Chemistry students to this day continue to be amazed by holding a wire screen over a Bunsen burner and observing its flame thus contained.) Davy said of the final design, which consisted of a cotton-wick oil lamp enclosed in a column of fine iron mesh, that it confined the destructive flame “like a bird in a cage.” Improving on Davy’s simile, Holmes writes: ” went down ‘G’ pit at Walls End, spent some two hours beneath the surface, and…delivered an impromptu fifteen-minute lecture on using the lamp safely, stressing the need to avoid strong air currents or clouds of coal dust, which could still risk freak explosions. He also pointed out that the state of the flame indicated the presence, and even the strength, of fire-damp in a shaft. His lamp not only caged the flame, it transformed it into a canary.”

Banks saw to it that Davy was awarded the Rumford Medal for this achievement and publicly defended him against a rival who (mistakenly) claimed priority. The always helpful Banks also brokered the relationship between the Herschels and King George III. Herschel needed large sums to build his enormous telescopes, and Banks finessed many of the financial transactions. In one of his typically friendly letters he expressed, “My best Compliments to Mr Herschell, with best wishes for the Sake of Science that his nights may be as Sleepless as he can wish them himself.”

This book often reads like a novel, but it offers admirable documentation and appended information to support its abundance of factual material. It contains the best index I have ever perused. Usually reviewers read galley copies that don’t yet have an index, and even when the index is added later to the finished book, it often doesn’t provide much. The index to The Age of Wonder is so generously detailed that it should serve as a paragon. Its entry on Michael Faraday, for example, fills an entire column of tiny print, with subheadings such as “character and appearance,” “injured in laboratory explosion,” and “friendship with Coleridge.”

If the age witnessed a great awakening in the naming of new constellations and the first classification of clouds by the nascent science of meteorology, it also knew the awful wakefulness of surgery in the absence of anesthesia. Holmes recounts how, in 1811, “the Herschels’ old friend Fanny Burney…underwent an agonizing operation for breast cancer without anesthetic. It was carried out by an outstanding French military surgeon, Dominique Larrey, in Paris, and so successfully concluded that she lived for another twenty years. What is even more remarkable, Fanny Burney remained conscious throughout the entire operation, and subsequently wrote a detailed account of this experience, watching parts of the surgical procedure through the thin cambric cloth that had been placed over her face. At the time the surgeon did not realize that the material was semi-transparent: “I refused to be held; but when, bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished steel — I closed my eyes. I would not trust to convulsive fear the sight of the terrible incision.”

I have only one quibble with Mr. Holmes, which is that he sometimes grows too speculative about the motivations of his subjects. Having spent so much time reading their mail and their diaries, I suppose he cannot help but express his own interpretation of their innermost intent.

I forgive him, of course, and thank him for the marvelous synthesis he has created in these pages, as when he considers the global climate change effected by the April 1815 Tambora volcano in Indonesia:

Pink snow fell in Italy, and the harvest failed in France, Germany and England. Byron, exiled from Britain and passing this summer on Lac Leman with Shelley, wrote his poem ‘Darkness,’ reflecting on the possibilities of a future cosmological catastrophe, as hinted at by Herschel’s late papers.

I had a dream which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air…

Long live wonder.

Editor’s Note: Don’t miss our in-depth Interview with Richard Holmes about The Age of Wonder and the art of biography.