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

Richard Holmes

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

'The Age of Wonder' is Richard Holmes's first major work of biography in over a decade. It has been inspired by the scientific ferment that swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, 'The Age of Wonder' and which Holmes now radically redefines as 'the revolution of Romantic Science'. The book opens with Joseph Banks, botanist on Captain Cook's first Endeavour voyage, stepping onto a Tahitian beach in 1769, hoping to discover Paradise. Many other voyages of discovery swiftly follow, while Banks, now President of the Royal Society in London, becomes our narrative guide to what truly emerges as an Age of Wonder. Banks introduces us to the two scientific figures that dominate the book: astronomer William Herschel and chemist Humphry Davy.Herschel's tireless dedication to the stars, assisted (and perhaps rivalled) by his comet-finding sister Caroline, changed forever the public conception of the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy and the meaning of the universe itself. Davy first shocked the scientific community with his near-suicidal gas experiments in Bristol, then went on to save thousands of lives with his Safety Lamp and established British chemistry as the leading professional science in Europe. But at the cost, perhaps, of his own heart. Holmes proposes a radical vision of science before Darwin, exploring the earliest ideas of deep time and deep space, the creative rivalry with the French scientific establishment, and the startling impact of discovery on great writers and poets such as Mary Shelley, Coleridge, Byron and Keats. 4.6 out of 5 based on 12 reviews
The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

Omniscore:

Classification Non-fiction
Genre History, Biography
Format Hardback
Pages 380
RRP £25.00
Date of Publication October 2008
ISBN 978-0007149520
Publisher HarperPress
 

'The Age of Wonder' is Richard Holmes's first major work of biography in over a decade. It has been inspired by the scientific ferment that swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, 'The Age of Wonder' and which Holmes now radically redefines as 'the revolution of Romantic Science'. The book opens with Joseph Banks, botanist on Captain Cook's first Endeavour voyage, stepping onto a Tahitian beach in 1769, hoping to discover Paradise. Many other voyages of discovery swiftly follow, while Banks, now President of the Royal Society in London, becomes our narrative guide to what truly emerges as an Age of Wonder. Banks introduces us to the two scientific figures that dominate the book: astronomer William Herschel and chemist Humphry Davy.Herschel's tireless dedication to the stars, assisted (and perhaps rivalled) by his comet-finding sister Caroline, changed forever the public conception of the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy and the meaning of the universe itself. Davy first shocked the scientific community with his near-suicidal gas experiments in Bristol, then went on to save thousands of lives with his Safety Lamp and established British chemistry as the leading professional science in Europe. But at the cost, perhaps, of his own heart. Holmes proposes a radical vision of science before Darwin, exploring the earliest ideas of deep time and deep space, the creative rivalry with the French scientific establishment, and the startling impact of discovery on great writers and poets such as Mary Shelley, Coleridge, Byron and Keats.

Reviews

The Guardian

Jenny Uglow

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.

11/10/2008

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The Observer

Robin McKie

As Holmes makes clear, 200 years ago, poets, writers and scientists shared a common vision of Nature. There is no reason why they should not do so again... It is certainly a convincing thesis, admirably assembled by Holmes in a book that presents the reader with 'a relay race of scientific stories'. Thus the lives of botanist Joseph Banks, Davy the chemist, the poet Coleridge and a host of other scientific romantics are knitted together in a seamless narrative that is laced, to good effect, with a great deal of titillating gossip. The end result is a masterpiece: informative, amusing, insightful - and utterly compelling.

02/11/2008

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The Scotsman

Mark Lambert

[A] wonderfully engaging account... Holmes brilliantly illuminates the human and subjective aspects of science-making, showing how this existed not in opposition, but as handmaiden to the discovery of objective truth.

11/10/2008

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The Spectator

Ben Wilson

The Age of Wonder is fascinating in its own right; but more than that it serves as a model of how science should be taught and explained to a large audience, whatever the period and whatever the subject. We are reminded daily of the terror of science; innocent wonder is no longer possible when we have seen the alliance of barbarism and technology. Recovering and communicating the beauties and truths of modern science, uniting the two cultures, awaits its genius. This book provides the inspiration.

15/10/2008

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The Times

David Rooney

There is no dry page in this visceral, spirited and sexy account. We watch tattooing in Tahiti and surgery without anaesthetic in Paris. Knives slice flesh, organs explode, corpses laugh and walk. Caroline Herschel trips and impales herself on a butcher's hook... A glance at Holmes's list of references and further reading shows just what an academic and intellectual feat this is.

26/09/2008

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The Sunday Times

John Carey

Holmes suffuses his book with the joy, hope and wonder of the revolutionary era. Reading it is like a holiday in a sunny landscape, full of fascinating bypaths that lead to unexpected vistas. He believes that we must engage the minds of young people with science by writing about it in a new way, entering imaginatively into the biographies of individual scientists and showing what makes them just as creative as poets, painters and musicians. The Age of Wonder is offered, with due modesty, as a model, and it succeeds inspiringly.

05/10/2008

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The Financial Times

Lisa Jardine

Holmes is the established authority on the Romantic poets of this period and they are all brought deftly into the present story... This is a book to linger over, to savour the tantalising details of the minor figures who thread in and out of Holmes's story. Above all, there are the women - from Caroline Herschel, the great observational astronomer overshadowed by her domineering brother William, to Davy's put-upon wife Jane, deprived of a home life by her husband's driving ambition. In Holmes's world they hold their place among the more prominent figures who shaped the world in which we still live today.

11/10/2008

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The Literary Review

Patricia Fara

Holmes has cherry-picked the most colourful stories, but he does tell them extremely well. Newcomers to Davy's experiments with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) have an especially hilarious treat in store. Unlike those biographers who feel that every fact must go in - and dispatching several days of research into the recycling bin does hurt! - Holmes excels at condensing pages of detail in order to recreate the lived experiences of his travellers.

01/10/2008

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The New Statesman

Kevin Jackson

[An] exuberant and thought-provoking book... As one would expect from Holmes, our leading biographer of figures from those momentous generations, it makes for an abundance of yarns, metaphors and insights, above all on the occasions when the author picks up some familiar or overfamiliar detail from a poem and makes it come alive in a new way... Holmes proves beyond reasonable dissent that, far from being consistently horrified by the recent developments in science, the Romantics were also thrilled, amazed and inspired by them.

09/10/2008

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The Independent

Peter Forbes

Romanticism is a subjectivism, so there can be nothing definitive about Holmes's choices of the key figures in Romantic Science. Early in the book, he strays into implying that sensation and celebrity and are in themselves Romantic. So we have Branson-esque ballooning stunts, a celebrity cult, and a note of prurience that seams through the book. But its heart – the linked stories of Banks, Herschel and Davy – is thrilling: a portrait of bold adventure among the stars, across the oceans, deep into matter, poetry and the human psyche.

26/09/2008

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The Daily Telegraph

Mike Jay

...by the 1830s, the wonder was fading. Science was becoming more professional, and by 1840 the term "scientist" - proposed by analogy with "artist", and bitterly contested by some of the old guard - had emerged to describe the footsoldiers in the new army of knowledge. Like Dickens's Gradgrind, they assembled "facts, sir, nothing but facts" to great effect. But Holmes is passionately convinced that science remains bigger than the sum of its facts, and this generous and hugely enjoyable cavalcade of stories does much to restore the lustre of its origins.

29/09/2008

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The Daily Telegraph

Jonathan Bate

The only problem with Holmes's structure is that it leaves little room for scientists who worked outside the establishment of the Royal Society. Joseph Priestley in particular, whose chemical experiments gave Davy his foundations, is given short shrift... The book ends with Charles Darwin setting sail on the Beagle and with anticipation of the moment when The Origin of Species will turn the world upside-down, but geology, the science of yawning gaps, is itself a conspicuous absence from Holmes's entrancing tour.

29/09/2008

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