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

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

by Richard Holmes

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400031870
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/02/2010
Pages: 576
Sales rank: 165,439
Product dimensions: 9.24(w) x 6.10(h) x 1.24(d)

About the Author

Richard Holmes is the author of Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer; Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer; Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage; Shelley: The Pursuit (for which he received the Somerset Maugham Award); Coleridge: Early Visions; and Coleridge: Darker Reflections (a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist). He lives in England.

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Chapter 1

 Joseph Banks in Paradise

1

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. He had been told that this was the location of Paradise: a wonderful idea, although he did not quite believe it.
 
Banks was twenty-six years old, tall and well-built, with an appealing bramble of dark curls. By temperament he was cheerful, confident and adventurous: a true child of the Enlightenment. Yet he had thoughtful eyes and, at moments, a certain brooding intensity: a premonition of a quite different sensibility, the dreaming inwardness of Romanticism. He did not like to give way to it. So he kept good company with his shipmates, and had carefully maintained his physical fitness throughout the first eight months of the voyage. He regarded himself – ‘thank god’ – as in as good mental and physical trim as a man could be. When occasionally depressed, he did vigorous jumping ‘rope exercises’ in his cabin, once nearly breaking his leg while skipping.

He was capable of working patiently for hours on end in the extremely cramped conditions on board. The quarterdeck cabin, which he shared with his friend Dr Daniel Solander, was approximately eight feet by ten. He had adopted a strict daily routine of botanical drawing, electrical experiments, animal dissections, deck-walking, bird-shooting (when available) and journal-writing. He constantly fished specimens from the sea, shot or netted wild birds, and observed meteorological phenomena, such as the beautiful ‘lunar rainbows’. When his gums had begun bleeding ominously with the onset of scurvy, he had calmly treated himself with a specially pre-prepared syrup (‘Dr Hume’s mixture’) of concentrated lemon juice, taking precisely six ounces a day. Within a week he was cured.

Just occasionally young Banks’s scientific enthusiasm turned to explosive impatience. When rudely prevented from carrying out any botanical field trips by the Spanish Consul at Rio de Janeiro, and confined for three weeks to the sweltering ship in the harbour at Rio, he wrote colourfully to a friend at the Royal Society: ‘You have heard of Tantalus in hell, you have heard of the French man laying swaddled in linen between two of his Mistresses both naked using every possible means to excite desire. But you have never heard of a tantalized wretch who has born his situation with less patience than I have done mine. I have cursed, swore, raved, stamped.’ Banks did however unofficially slip over the side at night to collect wild seeds and plants, a hoard which included the exotic purple bougainvillea.

Once among the Polynesian isles, Banks spent hours at the topgallant masthead, his large form crouched awkwardly in the crow’s nest, looking for landfall beneath the heavy tropical cloudbase. At night the crew would hear distant surf roaring through the dark. Now at last he gazed out at the fabled blue lagoon, the black volcanic sand, and the intriguing palm trees (Linnaeus’s Arecaceae). Above the beach the precipitous hills, dense with dark-green foliage and gleaming with white streams, rose sharply to 7,000 feet. On the naval chart Banks noted that the place was marked, prosaically enough, ‘Port Royal Bay, King George the Third’s Island’. ‘As soon as the anchors were well down the boats were hoisted out and we all went ashore where we were met by some hundreds of the inhabitants whose faces at least gave evident signs that we were not unwelcome guests, tho they at first hardly dare approach us. After a little time they became very familiar. The first who aproachd us came creeping almost on his hands and knees and gave us a green bough the token of peace.’

Taking the hint, all the British shore party pulled down green boughs from the surrounding palm trees and carried them along the beach, waving them like ceremonial parasols. Eventually they were shown an idyllic spot close by a stream, where it was indicated that they could set up camp. The green boughs were thrown down in a great pile on the sand, ‘and thus peace was concluded’. Here the British settlement known as Fort Venus was to be established: ‘We then walkd into the woods followd by the whole train to whom we gave beads and small presents. In this manner we walked for 4 or 5 miles under groves of Cocoa nut and Bread fruit trees loaded with a profusion of fruit and giving the most gratefull shade I have ever experienced. Under these were the habitations of the people most of them without walls. In short the scene we saw was the truest picture of an Arcadia of which we were going to be Kings that the imagination can form.’

As the men walked back, feeling dangerously like royalty, the Tahitian girls draped them with flowers, offered ‘all kind of civilities’ and gestured invitingly towards the coconut mats spread in the shade. Banks felt, reluctantly, that since islanders’ houses were ‘entirely without walls’ it was not quite the moment to ‘put their politeness to every test’. He would not have failed to have done so ‘had circumstances been more favourable’.

2

Tahiti lies roughly east–west just below the 17th parallel, one of the largest of what are now the Society Islands, roughly halfway between Peru and Australia. It is shaped not unlike a figure of eight, some 120 miles (‘40 leagues’) in circumference. Most of its foreshores are easily accessible, a series of broad, curving bays with black volcanic sands or pinkish-white coral beaches, fringed by coconut palms and breadfruit trees. But a few hundred yards inland, the ground rises sharply into an entirely different topography. The steep, densely wooded volcanic hills lead upwards to a remote and hostile landscape of deep gullies, sheer cliffs and perilous ledges.

Contrary to legend, the Endeavour, commanded by Lieutenant James Cook, was not the first European ship to make landfall in Tahiti. Spanish expeditions, under Quiroz or Torres, had probably touched there in the late sixteenth century, and claimed it for Spain. A previous English expedition, under Captain Wallis of the Dolphin, had definitely landed there in 1767, when it was described as ‘romantic’, and claimed for England. A French expedition under Louis-Antoine de Bougainville had anchored there the following year, and claimed it for France.

The French had racily christened Tahiti ‘La Nouvelle Cythère’, the New Island of Love. Banks’s opposite number, the French botanist Philibert Commerson (who named the bougainvillea after his captain), had published a sensational letter in the Mercure de France describing Tahiti as a sexual ‘Utopia’. It proved that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was right about the existence of the Noble Savage. But then, the French had only spent nine days on the island.

Cook was more sceptical, and had every member of his crew (including the officers) examined for venereal infections four weeks before arriving, by their surgeon Jonathan Monkhouse. He issued a series of Landing Instructions, which stated that the first rule of conduct ashore was civilised behaviour: ‘To Endeavour by every fair means to cultivate a Friendship with the Natives and to treat them with all Imaginable Humanity.’ It was no coincidence that he enshrined the ship’s own name in this instruction.

Joseph Banks had his own views on Paradise. He gave a whimsical account of his first night ashore in his Endeavour Journal. He dined deliciously on dressed fish and breadfruit, next to a Tahitian queen, who ‘did me the honour with very little invitation to squat down on the mats close by me’. However, the queen was ‘ugly enough in conscience’. Banks then noticed a very pretty girl, ‘with a fire in her eyes’ and white hibiscus in her hair, lingering in the ‘common crowd’ at the door. He encouraged her to come and sit on his other side, studiously ignored the queen for the rest of the evening, and ‘loaded’ the Polynesian beauty with bead necklaces and every compliment he could manage. ‘How this would have ended is hard to say,’ he observed later. In fact the amorous party broke up abruptly when it was discovered that his friend Solander had had a snuffbox picked from his pocket, and a fellow officer had lost ‘a pair of opera glasses’. It is not explained why he had brought opera glasses ashore in the first place.

This thieving proved to be completely customary in Tahiti, and led to many painful misunderstandings on both sides. The first occurred the following day, when a Tahitian quite openly made off with a marine’s musket, and was immediately shot dead by a punctilious guard. Banks quickly grasped that some quite different notion of property must be involved, and noted grimly: ‘We retird to the ship not well pleasd with the days expedition, guilty no doubt in some measure of the death of a man who the most severe laws of equity would not have condemnd to so severe a punishment. No canoes about the ship this morning, indeed we could not expect any as it is probable that the news of our behaviour yesterday was now known every where, a circumstance which will doubtless not increase the confidence of our friends the Indians.’ Nonetheless, to Banks’s relief and evident surprise, good relations were restored within twenty-four hours.

The Endeavour expedition remained for three months on Tahiti. Its main object was to observe a Transit of Venus across the face of the sun. (Cook stated that this was the reason their settlement was named Fort Venus, though his junior officers gave a different explanation.) This was due on the morning of 3 June 1769, and there would be no other transit for the next hundred years (not until 1874). It was a unique chance to establish the solar parallax, and hence the distance of the sun from the earth. This calculation depended on observing the exact timing at which the silhouette of Venus first entered, and then exited from, the sun’s disc.

Banks was not part of the astronomical team, but when the expedition’s quadrant was stolen one night shortly before the transit was due, he reacted with characteristic energy and courage. He knew that without this large and exquisitely calibrated brass instrument, used to measure precise astronomical angles, the entire observation would be rendered valueless. Not waiting for Cook or his marine guards, Banks roused the expedition’s official astronomer, William Green, and set off immediately on foot in pursuit of the thief. In the dizzy heat, Banks followed the trail far up into the hills, accompanied only by a reluctant Green, one unarmed midshipman and a Tahitian interpreter. They penetrated seven miles inland through the Tahitian jungle, further than any European had been before: ‘The weather was excessive hot, the Thermometer before we left the tents up at 91 made our journey very tiresome. Sometimes we walk’d sometimes we ran when we imagind (which we sometimes did) that the chase was just before us till we arrivd at the top of a hill about 4 miles from the tents. From this place [the interpreter] Tubourai shew’d us a point about 3 miles off and made us understand that we were not to expect the instrument till we got there. We now considerd our situation. No arms among us but a pair of pocket pistols which I always carried; going at least 7 miles from our fort where the Indians might not be quite so submissive as at home; going also to take from them a prize for which they had ventured their lives.’

Banks decided to send back the midshipman with a brief message to Cook that armed reinforcements would be welcome. Meanwhile he and Green would press on alone, ‘telling him at the same time that it was impossible we could return till dark night’.

Before dusk, Banks ran the thief to ground in an unknown and potentially hostile village. A crowd quickly gathered round them, ‘rudely’ jostling them. Following a Tahitian custom he had already learned, Banks quickly drew out a ring on the grass, and surrounded by ‘some hundreds’ of faces, sat quietly down in the centre. Here, instead of threatening or blustering, he began to explain and negotiate. For some time nothing transpired. Then, piece by piece, starting with its heavy wooden deal case, the quadrant was solemnly returned. ‘Mr Green began to overlook the Instrument to see if any part or parts were wanting… The stand was not there but that we were informd had been left behind by the thief and we should have it on our return… Nothing else was wanting but what could easily be repaired, so we pack’d all up in grass as well as we could and proceeded homewards.’

By the time armed marines came up, sweating and jittery, about two miles down the track, Banks had completed the transaction and made several new friends. Everyone returned peacefully to Fort Venus on the shore. For this exploit, all conducted with the greatest calm and good humour, Banks earned the profound gratitude of Cook, who noted that ‘Mr Banks is always very alert upon all occasions wherein the Natives are concerned.’ Banks concluded mildly in his journal: ‘All were, you may imagine, not a little pleased at the event of our excursion.’

Banks and Cook were a seemingly ill-matched pair. They were divided by background, education, class and manners. Yet they formed a curiously effective team. Cook’s cool and formal manners towards the Tahitians were balanced by Banks’s natural openness and enthusiasm, which easily won friends. With their help he would gather a mass of plant and animal specimens, and make what was in effect an early anthropological study of Tahitian customs. His journal entries cover everything from clothes (or lack of them) and cookery to dancing, tattooing, sexual practices, fishing methods, wood-carving, and religious beliefs. His accounts of a dog being roasted, or a young woman having her buttocks tattooed, are frank and unforgettable. He attended Tahitian ceremonial events, slept in their huts, ate their food, recorded their customs and learned their language. He was pioneering a new kind of science. As he wrote in his journal: ‘I found them to be a people so free from deceit that I trusted myself among them almost as freely as I could do in my own countrey, sleeping continually in their houses in the woods with not so much as a single companion.’

Table of Contents

List of illustrations
Prologue

1 Joseph Banks in Paradise
2 Herschel on the Moon
3 Balloonists in Heaven
4 Herschel Among the Stars
5 Mungo Park in Africa
6 Davy on the Gas
7 Dr Frankenstein and the Soul
8 Davy and the Lamp
9 Sorcerer and Apprentice
10 Young Scientists

Epilogue
Cast List
Bibliography
References
Acknowledgements
Index

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Age of Wonder 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 71 reviews.
Scott-Waring More than 1 year ago
Like the polymath intellectuals of the times, The Age of Wonder reaches across multiple themes and disciplines, combining biography with the history of science, literature and even social change. Holmes' biographical accounts carry the reader through the book, each figure serving as a new torchbearer in the progression of science in the age-and each figure also bringing new questions as that same science slowly reveals a universe far vaster and stranger than the easily defined world of the old philosophy. The Age of Wonder is a book about discovery, both exciting and frightening-discovery that removes surety as much as it offers hope. To read it is to read the opening of the human mind, and to be called again to look at the world with wonder. I am Scott C. Waring, author of novels George's Pond & West's Time Machine.
Pablo_in_Austin More than 1 year ago
This book is wonderful - the writing is clear and concise, the different stories unique and thrilling. Rarely have I enjoyed a book as much as this. Although it is primarily about science, the way the author weaves the romantic era writers into the story is one of the reasons this book is so very special. I highly recommend this book to anyone that has even the slightest interest in science and the history of science.
Fabe More than 1 year ago
Only about half way through, I find "The Age of Wonder..." to be a very good book. Filled with facts and dates, it should be dry reading; instead, Holmes has written a wonderfully entertaining book about the Romantic Age of Discovery and those who made it so.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Imagine a time when great poets wrote of great new findings of science and when scientists wrote poetry about how they poked and prodded the earth and the sky to reveal a great new world. Sound like some futuristic dream? It's not. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, The Age of Romanticism, there was no boundary between science and poetry. Poets felt that they, like scientists were serious observers and seekers of truth. The scientists, educated to understand poetry and to value the classics. agreed. The book starts with Joseph Banks sailing with Captain Cook to Tahiti, where, in effect, he founded anthropology, then goes on to the amazing star gazing of William Herschel and his sister. Then comes the saga of Humphrey Davy. The book is 600 pages long, but kept me enthralled to the end. Because there are so many names of people and places, with long spaces between their mention, it's best to read on an eBook, so when a name appears you can tap it, then select Find and a popup box appears, listing every sentence with that name. You quickly recall the person or place and go on your merry name
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This highly interesting and well written study of nineteenth century scientific geniuses and their personalities is a compelling book to read. The author uses personal letters and diaries in combination with contemporary events to show the often real poetic nature of the scientists studied. The work is based on Joseph Bank and British, German, and French scientific discoveries to the exclusion of most others.
leopardiNJ More than 1 year ago
While a few modern scientists have written prose fiction, very few have delved into poetry and none have been counted amount any nation's poet laureates. That some of the most important scientists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were accomplished poets comes as something of a surprise. Did the poetical endeavors of those Romantic era scientists have as much impact on society in general as their scientific discoveries? Richard Holmes assigned himself the daunting task of simultaneously analyzing both the scientific and literary developments of the Romantic Era. The author's defined emphasis is on William Herschel, the astronomer, and Sir Humphrey Davy, the chemist, but The Age of Wonder wanders far and wide both among scientists and authors. Unfortunately that wandering is often not tightly related to the overall theme. For that matter, the overall theme is never clearly defined. Is it the influence that scientific developments of that era had on literature and society? Or, is it the influence that literature and philosophy had on the development of science? This is a lengthy (629 pages) book with Holmes spending nearly 200 pages (but very little about the transit of Venus which was the object of the journey) on spicy tales of the South Pacific (Banks), ballooning, Mungo Park and Frankenstein. With the exception of the last, where the theme of vitalism reflects some influence of literature on science, there is no clear bearing of the other topics on any serious scientific developments. Those 200 pages might have been better spent developing a clearer concept of how science and literature may have interacted. The Age of Wonder is a meticulously researched, scholarly work with an extensive, structured bibliography, references and even a "Cast of Characters". The book's insights into the personalities of several of the greatest thinkers of this remarkable era are worth reading, even if those portraits are at times not very flattering. Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science William Paterson University
Eisteddfod More than 1 year ago
Anyone who has read the works of the English Romantics but who is not familiar with what the world of science was up to in the late 18th and early 19th centuries will be ebgrossed by Holmes' book. As it turns out, the C. P. Snow-ian Two Cultures had yet to make their distinction, one from the other: poets and "natural philosophers" wielded many of the same mental processes, and Holmes shows us, in richly drawn portraits of Banks, Harvey, Faraday, Coleridge, Mary Shelley, Erasmus Darwin,and the mighty Herschels, what an electric time the intellect was having across the span of a couple of generations. This reader's only regret, and a sign of our present times: reading this as an ebook meant not being able to flip back and forth between notes and text, and chapters. So frustrating!!
RealityAK More than 1 year ago
Excellent book. What great insight into the body knowledge we call science. Individuals that give this a low rating are defiinitely limited in their cognitive ability. Reading this gives a wonderful window into the development of the discipline we call science.
lmg More than 1 year ago
This book is extremely engaging, especially so for someone who considers themselves to be science-iliterate as I do. It will make a great gift book for those with a budding interest in the history of science.
phollando on LibraryThing 27 days ago
June 24th 1833 was the date when the word 'scientist' was arguably coined. At a meeting for the British Association for the Advancement of Science, William Whewell was addressing the packed Senate House on the nature of science when the applause died down one sole figure remained standing, and to the surprise of everyone present, it was that of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He remarked of the members present in the room that the name they used for their profession was no longer appropriate, men knee deep in mud searching for fossils being called 'natural philosophers' didn't quite seem right and the other moniker 'men of science' hardly included the likes of Caroline Herschel; something better had to be devised. As an actual metaphysician himself Coleridge wanted a name that would more reflect the practical and hands-on nature of their work. Whewell's suggestion was that one could by analogy of art to artist go from science to scientist and thus the word was born.This book deals with how we progressed from the pure philosophy of the inductive reasoning of Bacon and Newton and the rationalism and foundationalism of Descartes, through the independently wealthy and crown sponsored men of Royal Society to the more familiar profession of science of Whewhell, Charles Darwin and beyond. At the heart of this book are biographies of three of the guiding lights of Romantic science. The first is of Sir Joseph Banks whose botanical voyages in Tahiti with Captain Cook opened his eyes to a world of experience and adventure which, when he himself was crippled by gout and unable to travel, encouraged in others as the President of the Royal Society. The second is William Herschell and his redoubtable sister Caroline who brought skill, ingenuity and a complete thoroughness to the science of astrology through regular nightly sweeps of the sky and better telescopic technology that helped them discover Uranus and two of its moons as well as two moons of Saturn and a catalogue of over 500 new nebulae. Finally we meet Sir Humphry Davy and his experiments with gases and electricity made him a veritable rock star.Part of what makes this period so exciting is that the arts and sciences had an almost symbiotic existence. Erasmus Darwin and Humpry Davy both composed poetry whilst the likes of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shelly wrote pamphlets on science and natural philosophy. It was a synthesis that was mutually beneficial which makes me think that Stephen Hawking was all the more wrong when in his most recent book 'The Grand Design' he made the pronouncement that 'philosophy is dead' a somewhat ironically self-defeating philosophical stance.It was an exciting period in history, the exploration of Africa and the islands of the South Pacific. The advent of flight with the early experiments in Ballooning. There was also an exciting cast, not just the poets and triumvirate of scientists mentioned above but the likes of Michael Faraday, Thomas Beddoes, Mungo Park and the rest. Holmes infuses the narrative with his own sense of wonder and as the book ends with Charles Darwin heading off on the HMS Beagle he leaves us wanting to know what comes next.
fdholt on LibraryThing 27 days ago
Richard Holmes has written many books about romantic authors and poets. This is a natural extension of his earlier work since many learned men and women of the time had a curiosity about the world and how it worked. The main thrust of the book is the story of the Royal Society in the early 1800s (of which Ben Franklin was a member along many other famous scientists up to this day) and its longtime president, Joseph Banks (1743-1820). Holmes also covers the work of William and Caroline Herschel in astronomy, Humphry Davy and the safety lamp, Mungo Park¿s explorations, and a host of supporting characters, including Mary Shelley and Thomas Beddoes.The writing style was informal and interesting, not typical of most scholarly books. Knowledge of science is not necessary to understand the book. The only in-text footnotes are necessary to explain the concepts or expand on the text. The normal footnoted items were listed as references in the back of the book along with an excellent index, a bibliography divided by subject, and a cast list (to easily keep track of all the minor players in the story). The illustrations are in full color and added to the enjoyment of the book.The book¿s enthusiasm for science can be summed up by William Wordsworth ¿ ¿My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky¿¿
gbsallery on LibraryThing 27 days ago
Though fascinating on Davy, Herschel and Banks, and an admirable attempt to span the "two cultures" of art and science, this book draws too-tenuous parallels between these scientists and their contemporaries. There is much speculation, which feels as though the author is trying too hard to create analogies, when the actual content needs no such augmentation - the examples of Coleridge and Davy make it quite clear that the worlds of poetry and chemistry were not yet separate. This detracts slightly from what is otherwise an excellent book; well researched, readable and covering a fascinating period in the development of western society.Could have done with a little more on the Royal Institution, too - but I'm biased.
ReadThisNotThat on LibraryThing 27 days ago
Oh my goodness! I'm a fast reader and this book took me forever to read (I returned it a week overdue after renewing it once for an additional three weeks) but it was worth every minute.Holmes' exploration of how the sciences began to flourish during the Romantic generation is incredibly interesting and covers everything from astronomy to anthropology, biology to chemistry, and everything in between. At no point was I ever bored by this book and everytime I put it down I looked forward to opening it up again.Now, to be honest with you, I'm a big fan of non-fiction books and a big fan of science books. If I weren't already a big fan of these types of books I'm not sure I would've lasted through the entire thing. It is a long book with a lot of information. But for geeky people like me? It's perfect!
Doey on LibraryThing 27 days ago
Mesmerising and compeling book. Holmes is an excellent writer who explains complicated scientific discoveries with clarity and refuses to let the thorough explainations stop the steady progress and complete enjoyment of this book. I didn't get a good night's sleep any of the three days it took to finish this book. It was imposible to put down. Names that one begrudginly memorized in high school come alive in this fine mixture of biography and science discovery. Makes me want to read more about each of his major characters. I stayed up late each night unable to put this fascinating book down. Only complaint is that I wish he had put maps in the book to find the variety of locations he reference in his book.
kacollin on LibraryThing 27 days ago
Joseph Banks in paradise, William Herschel's discovery of Uranus... This book is awesome.
Harlan879 on LibraryThing 27 days ago
A patchy but nonetheless interesting history of Romantic-era (1770-1830, roughly) English scientists and explorers, focusing on Banks, the Hershels, and Davy, and their impacts on writers and poets of the era. I hoped for a more clearly stated discussion of the way that the scientific progress changed the culture and world-view of literary figures, but despite the extensively researched history of the "two cultures" and their interconnections, I feel that Holmes got somewhat bogged down by relating the history and was unable to fully work through the sociological and psychological consequences of "Age of Wonder." There were some exceptions, such as the way that he connects Herschel's astronomical discoveries to the notion of "deep space", "deep time", and the minuteness of the Earth and humanity. Other particular strengths of the book are the amusing recounting of Banks' time on Tahiti, Davy's egotism, and the struggles of Caroline Hershel and Mary Shelley in that pre-feminist era.
Jaylia3 on LibraryThing 27 days ago
This book is a fascinating voyage back to the Romantic Age in Europe when there were still far flung parts of the globe to explore, most of the chemical elements awaited discovery, and time and space were found to be much vaster than anyone had expected. Even more wonderfully, scientists and artists were not naturally at odds¿chemist Humphry Davy and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge were friends, Percy Bysshe Shelley attended science lectures at the Royal Society and a musician, William Herschel, became the leading astronomer of England. Poets looked to the brave new world of science for inspiration, and many scientists¿including Davy and Charles Darwin¿s grandfather Erasmus¿wrote poetry. While scientists were perfecting the inductive reasoning of Newton and Francis Bacon they also used poetic devices like analogies to advance their understanding and inspire their research. It was an exciting and unsettling time and that makes for a great reading experience.
bobmcconnaughey on LibraryThing 3 months ago
Okay - finished the age of wonder while reading through a fit of insomnia early this morning. Richard Holmes' background is that of a literary historian/critic specializing in the romantic poets in particular. His approach works very well in this biographically grounded history of a distinct period in British cultural history. This age celebrated "the heroic" - whatever the field. And many of the major players, whether in science or literature or the battlefield, accepted this role, some far more avidly than others.Astronomy, chemistry, scientific expedition , and, to a lesser extent, geology and electromagnetism are the featured sciences. The Herschel's astronomical ventures and Lyalls geologic forays into deep space and deep time respectively required educated Britons to rethink their place in the universe. The stories of the great natural history treks both created public heroes and a fascination with the world that seemed stranger than fiction. The British chemists, with Sir Humphrey Davy the lionized public face of British science at the fore, conclusively demonstrated that the "sensible interpretation" of the physical world was wrong. (ie fire was not an element but rather a chemical process). Additionally the chemists proved their social utility by making life safer and more convenient - perhaps the most dramatic example being Davy, with the aid of his assistant Michael Faraday, developing the Davy safety lamp for coal miners, based on his understanding of the principles of combustion, that made an incredibly hazardous occupation significantly safer.British writers and scientists mixed both socially and "philosophically" - with Davy's friendship with the Lake poets being again the leading example. Holmes discusses the odd phenomenon of poets footnoting their verse with scientific asides - a practice begun by Erasmus Darwin, Charles's grandfather, and continued on through Shelley and Queen Mab! Davy wrote verse throughout his life (Southey was his initial poetic mentor) - and there are many examples of his poetry inspired both by nature, science and love. The book closes with Darwin and the Beagle - signifying both a satisfying end to one era and the beginning of another even more contentious, arguably more productive, era in which science became increasingly more specialized and "professionalized."The book is very nicely written, drawing heavily upon letters, memoirs and public writings of the protagonists. It is not so much a history of science as it is a history of an age in which science and society melded together more or less successfully, as demonstrated by the intertwined biographies of his main subjects.
bezoar44 on LibraryThing 3 months ago
This wonderful history offers an account of British science in the Romantic era, told through the lives of three men. Joseph Banks, after traveling to Tahiti in 1769, returned to England and eventually became the president of the Royal Society. There, through his own patronage and by introducing bright young scientists to other prospective mentors, Banks played a leading role in the development of a network of English and Scottish explorers, biologists, chemists, astronomers, and other scientists -- and kept them in touch with colleagues on the Continent, even during the Napoleonic Wars. The other two major figures are William Herschel, the German-born astronomer with an improbably dedicated sister and an extraordinary gift for building accurate telescopes; and Humphrey Davy, chemist, popular lecturer, and inventor of the gauze safety lamp for use in coal mines. A host of engaging figures round out the story, ranging from balloonists, to poets, to miners, to aristocratic patrons.Holmes is a literary historian, and brings to his account a finely-tuned sense of how scientists' discoveries influenced Romantic poets and writers, and also how much the scientists and writers had in common. Holmes has a particular talent for bringing alive the emotional and intellectual texture of his subjects' lives. In his prologue, Holmes notes that the period gave us the "the dazzling idea of the solitary scientific 'genius', thirsting and reckless for knowledge, for its own sake and perhaps at any cost." But as his story unfolds, it becomes clear that social networks enabled the flowering of Romantic science, and that their influence extended even to the next generation, which included such giants as Michael Faraday, John Herschel, and Charles Darwin.
bigmoose on LibraryThing 3 months ago
Holmes has written a detailed series of short biographies of the prominent individuals living in what he calls the "Age of Wonder". It is a period which he fits into the short 75 year span between the "Age of Discovery" and the "Romantic Scientific Discovery" period that follows. His "Age of Wonder" comprises roughly 1750 to 1825, or so.Holmes grandly recounts the history of Joseph Banks' joining the James Cook saling expedition around the world, including the lengthy stopover in Tahiti. Upon Banks' return to London he eventually becomes president of the Royal Society and is the one who guides the scientific community acceptance of William Herschel's discovery of a new planet (Uranus). The Herschel story makes up the second chapter of the book.After those two interesting biographical histories, I lost interest in the midst of the ballooning craze and the chemistry advances by Davy, that followed.The detail in these latter tedious subjects was too much for me and I had to put it down. The first half of the book, however, was good enough for me to give it 3 stars anyway.
KathleenBrady More than 1 year ago
This is a thrilling book -- possibly the best I have ever read and I have written two wonderful biographies. Age of Wonder combines the vivid characterization and sweep of the best 19th century novels with the historical accuracy and insight that Richard Holmes is known for. Discovering this book...a few years after its publication...has reminded me of why I so loved reading in the first place.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
All of you who said it was bad are wrong best book ive read in a long time i definitly recomend it
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