The Age of Wonder – How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes – reviewed by CBJ
Partial synopsis from Barnes & Noble:
A riveting history of the men and women whose discoveries and inventions at the end of the eighteenth century gave birth to the Romantic Age of Science.
Brilliantly conceived as a relay of scientific stories, The Age of Wonder investigates the earliest ideas of deep time and space, and the explorers of “dynamic science,” of an infinite, mysterious Nature waiting to be discovered. Three lives dominate the book: William Herschel and his sister Caroline, whose dedication to the study of the stars forever changed the public conception of the solar system, the Milky Way, and the meaning of the universe; and Humphry Davy, who, with only a grammar school education stunned the scientific community with his near-suicidal gas experiments that led to the invention of the miners’ lamp and established British chemistry as the leading professional science in Europe. This age of exploration extended to great writers and poets as well as scientists, all creators relishing in moments of high exhilaration, boundary-pushing and discovery.
The title does not lie, this is book of wonder and is a great read. Richard Holmes takes us sailing, ballooning and star gazing and opens us up to a better understanding of poets like Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Keats, Blake and Coleridge.
Holmes’ journey stood out for me when he captured the life of William Herschel and his sister – both astronomers. How about this for being a thinker for the ages: Very soon after the American Revolution, in 1786 to be exact, our future second President, John Adams, traveled to England, met with William Herschel who discovered the planet Uranus. The central theme of their conversation is recorded for posterity: “[They had] an impassioned discussion about the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and the moral implications of there being a ‘plurality of worlds’.” And that’s just the beginning.
The Romantic Generation produced great poets and great scientists – “[N]ew poetry and the new science were so closely entwined that they must somehow merge….” Everyone was thinking science and writing science. And yes scientists were also writers. Herschel wrote about how the deeper investigation of electricity and electro-magnetism “would become the leading science of the new age.”
This is a great read if you love discovery on almost every page.