The Age Of Wonder Is Richard Holmes First Major Work Of Biography For A Decade It Has Been Inspired By The Scientific Ferment That Swept Through Britain At The End Of The Th Century, And Which Holmes Now Radically Redefines As The Revolution Of Romantic Science

10 thoughts on “The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

  1. says:

    Whereas Newton, Hooke, Locke and Descartes were pop stars of the first scientific revolution in the 17th century, Richard Holmes looks at what Coleridge called a second scientific revolution, the era of scientific breakthrough between Captain Cook s first circumnavigation in 1768 and Darwin s journey on the Beagle in 1831 He does this by a sort of relay, beginning with Joseph Banks, a botanist on Cooks ship, Endeavor, connecting him to William Herschel, an astronomer who with his sister, Caroline, revolutionized how we look at the heavens, building the first huge telescopes, including a 40 foot reflecting telescope He discovered Uranus insert jejune joke here which had another, less entertaining, name before the final one was universally agreed upon He and his sister mapped a host of comets, planetary moons and other astronomical phenomena From the Herschels we ascend to the world of ballooning, quite a big deal at the time, and mortally dangerous The Montgolfier Brothers put in an appearance as do other daredevils of both scientific and adventuresome bents Mungo Park was a world class explorer who combined a daring spirit with a medical degree and an interest in exploring unknown Africa He sought the origins of the Congo and Niger rivers with encouragement from Banks, by then head of the Royal Society Humphrey Davy figures large in this tale, sharing most of the real estate here with the Herschels Davy experimented on himself as often as not for years with gases of various sorts He was successful in the short term in creating a lovely form of intoxication, but in the long run, had hit on a safe way to anesthetize medical patients Later, as a sort of superstar science stud of his day, Davy was asked to come up with a way to make mining safer He designed the first safe to use miner s lamp It cut down on fatalities dramatically, and earned him the gratitude of the nation Not only do we have scientific advances, we have the arts of the time These scientists were not lab bound nerds Herschel was a working musician, head of a band, a fellow who dashed off 24 symphonies Caroline sang at a professional level in addition to becoming the first woman to be a paid, professional scientist The scientists, portrayed here in mini biographies for the primary characters, also wrote and often sold poetry This combination of interests and the personal passion to persist against sometimes daunting odds gave the era its character It is from this time that we get the notion of a Doctor Frankenstein based on a real person, who was attempting reanimation the mad, obsessed scientist, alone in his castle Could one revive dead tissue If one did would it have a soul There was animated discussion going on about what makes us human Is man merely a product of chemical interactions or is there some vital force, some chi that exists outside the scientifically observable plane, that makes us human, a soul maybe It became a major political acid test at the time, probably equivalent to the abortion issue today These are all fascinating people, with great accomplishments and plenty of quirks to their credit The period is dazzling in the mixing of art with science, artists with scientists and the renaissance character of many of the figures portrayed here It makes you want to know about them and about the era, as well as providing a contrast to our current age of hyper differentiation.Holmes writes with great affection for his subjects and with a charming sense of humor The golden age of ballooning certainly did include the first members of the Mile high club It is a fun read with new information around every turn, and offers us an appreciation for what an amazing age that was It won the National Book Critics Circle award for 2009, among other awards It deserved to win a lot There is only one word that can sum up this book, wonderful EXTRA STUFFFor a good review of this book, you should read this one this onehttp 2009 07 09 booBringing home mass quantities from storage, in the hopes of becoming unburdened by that obscene cost, I opened a box of National Geographics And being the sort I am, could not help but skim through Came across an article from the November 1996 issue, by T H Watkins about Joseph Banks, a significant person in the story told in The Age of Wonder The article is titled The Greening of the Empire Sadly, the available on line archive from NatGeo extends only back to 2005 But I did find a smaller version of the article, at the website It is a quick and fascinating read And if you have boxes of National Geographics tucked away in a garage or attic, you might want to go exploring and dig this one out Your journey will be well rewarded.It is impossible for me to pass any mention of the Montgolfier Brothers without succumbing to this bit of silliness from the pythons.

  2. says:

    There s nothing like reading a book about really smart and energetic people back in ye olden days to make you feel like a lazy piece of crap I m sitting here in front of a magic box where I could type in the words Hubble telescope in an image search and instantly see pictures of distant planets and galaxies but it seems like too much effort William Herschel had to invent his own telescopes just to get a decent view of the moon I m sure Sir William would like nothing better than to crawl out of his grave and beat me senseless.Just as the title promises, the book explores the scientific revolution that occurred from the late 1700s through the early 1800s by focusing on several key figures and examining the impact their work had in science and on the Romantic movement going on at the same time There s some really interesting people and stories in this book that show how wild and wide open the different sciences were at this time A gentleman like Joseph Banks could sail with Captain Cook to Tahiti, collect a wealth of data, and have a pretty good time in the process Apparently in the 18th century, what happened in Tahiti, stayed in Tahiti Banks went home to England where he served for decades as the president of the Royal Society and championed guys like Herschel, who was a German immigrant and a professional musician who taught himself astronomy and came up with telescopes superior to anything else at the time In addition to discovering Uranus stop snickering in the back , he made numerous other discoveries His sister worked as his assistant and was an accomplished astronomer in her own right Humphry Davy was another person with little scientific education who started doing experiments with gas, primarily huffing nitrous oxide, and went on to become one of the pioneers in the field of chemistry Crazy balloonists kill themselves in the earliest flights Bold African explorers vanish into the uncharted regions never to be heard from again Periodic clashes about faith versus science make everyone uneasy and political Some of the Romantic writers embrace the bold advances and some mock or fear them Rivals clash over ideas and credit, and eventually a split among the English researchers leads to the invention of the word scientist.There s a lot of ground covered here, and the first half of the book flew by with the tales of Banks in Tahiti and his career afterwards, along with the story of Herschel and his sister, Mungo Park and his exploration of Africa, and the daredevil balloonists However, the book gets bogged down with philosphy and poetry in the second half once Humphry Davey and his chemistry revolution is introduced The author does a nice job of conveying how utterly amazing it must have been to be one of these curious people at this time just as new technology was leading to whole new realms of study, but he also doesn t make excuses for some of the imperalism, racism, or sexism that was inherent to the people and time.Interesting read, but the second half was a bit of a struggle.

  3. says:

    I think the time has come for me to admit that I am either not going to finish this, or at least that I will finish it in very slow chunks over a much longer period than I had planned.Holmes book purports to put forth a unifying thesis about how science influenced the Romantic generation All the new discoveries in science are meant to have communicated to this generation endless new possibilities, which goes a long way to explaining the reputation this bunch has gone down with for credulity, extremes of emotion, hilarious mistakes, and pose striking And Holmes is sure to talk about this towards the end of each chapter, with several paragraphs detailing the interests that the famous poets, writers and political leaders of this generation took in science, how imagery inspired by astrological discoveries or explores voyages could be found in the public imagination.But the bulk of the book is the story of the individual scientists We get mini biographies and blow by blow recountings of the processes and thinking that lead to each scientists discovery, as well as entertaining bons mots and anecdotes to keep the good times rolling on the way Unfortunately, however, this ends up making the unifying theme seem rather forced To be honest, this felt like a pile of research notes reworked into pleasing long essay form for appearance in high brow periodicals It reads like a survey of the most exciting things going on in science in the period, chosen for the outsize personalities behind them as much as concrete achievements they put forth Therefore the thesis that prefaces the book seems forced by the book format, rather than an organic result of research I ve seen this particular academic disease once too often In order to sell books and create interest, somebody somewhere along the line wants to create the sense that this book is making a grand statement rather than simply being honest about it was.It doesn t prove much to me Well, other than that the English ruling class was small everybody could introduce you to everybody and poets looking for radical causes and inspiration are going to embrace radical things they read about And it doesn t need to It is a series of individual tales of scientific adventures and individuals that are mostly well told, in that Oxbridge old boy sort of way that I happen to find charming I m not sure why we needed to tack on Byron and Shelley at the end of the chapters, other than to give this book the broadest possible appeal to people interested in this period But honestly, these people are interesting enough on their own without them If the tales sometimes veer off into salacious side stories and irrelevant personality examinations, well, I never oppose books that counteract the idea that history is dry and boring If nothing else, Holmes gets that part right, which is why I will probably return to finish it in bits and pieces later.

  4. says:

    Holmes profiles prominent British scientists of the Romantic Era botanist Joseph Banks, astronomer William Herschel and chemist Humphrey Davy We meet their friends and acquaintances including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy and Mary Shelly, James Watt, Michael Faraday and many Holmes focuses on their cultural impact He shows how new ideas such as deep time, deep space, a universe in motion, invisible wavelengths of light, and electricity from chemicals influenced the writings of Erasmus Darwin, Keats, Wordsworth and other thinkers and poets New concepts about nature and the cosmos confronted established religious teachings and deeply held personal beliefs Science began to shape societies values At the same time, the public s imagination was stoked by Mungo Park s exploration of mysterious Africa and the balloonists exploration of the skies Holmes starts with Joseph Banks, who sailed around the world with Captain Cook from 1768 to 1771 documenting the flora and fauna and even becoming an early ethnographer Holmes focuses on Banks three months in Tahiti, visited so Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne could observe the transit of Venus across the sun Banks spent his time collecting plant and animal specimens as well as artifacts He documented the islanders culture taking a personal interest in the young females Upon his return he became the President of the Royal Society, embraced the rapid developments in science, and advised King George III on scientific matters His massive plantings transformed Kew Gardens into a grand setting.Next Holmes describes William Herschel, a self educated amateur astronomer who came to England from Germany By trade a musician his approach to observing the heavens was unique, reading the stars almost like sheet music One night looking at the stars through his homemade telescope an intrigued passerby stopped to find out The passerby was a member of the Royal Society who was impressed with Herschel s knowledge of the night sky and his beautifully crafted telescopes Herschel s papers and craftsmanship gained him recognition from Banks, Maskelyne and even King George III, a fellow Hanoverian Herschel became a Fellow of the Royal Society and was appointed the King s astronomer He became a premier builder of fine telescopes With his sister Caroline, Herschel regularly scanned the sky discovering numerous comets and nebulae which his superior telescopes enabled him to recognize often to be configurations of stars Perhaps most importantly he offered a picture of a universe in constant motion confronting the conventional assumption of a static universe as a backdrop to the solar system He posited that all the stars had solar systems of their own which were teeming with life He discovered Uranus, the first new planet found since antiquity Herschel explored the nature of light and discovered infrared radiation His sister Caroline made history as one of the first women to be recognized for her scientific achievements We move on to the balloon craze starting with the first manned flight on November 21, 1783 in Paris with the launch of a hot air balloon Hydrogen, just discovered by Henry Cavendish in 1766, was also used to fill balloons Some even tried hybrid hydrogen and hot air balloons, a dangerous combination Primarily exploited for entertainment and adventure, launchings drew huge crowds However, some scientists used balloons to understand the weather and to assess the ground below For the first time they could gauge the impact of cities, the distribution of cultivated fields, pasture and forests.Holmes takes us to Africa to follow the explorations of Mungo Park Banks wanted Park to find the fabled Timbuktu and trace the course of the Niger River Starting in Gambia in 1795 he headed east to find the Niger He was captured and imprisoned by Moors somehow escaping and wandering for hundreds of miles on his own to find his way back a year later Unfazed he returned in 1805, this time with troops They succumbed to disease or attacks by hostile residents Boating down the Niger Park was last seen only 300 miles from its mouth in a final assault by natives Accounts of his journey fed the British fascination with Africa People believed almost any type of strange creature or society could be found there.Finally we turn to Humphrey Davy who learned chemistry in his hometown of Penzance working in the pharmacy of a local surgeon Davy took a position at the Pneumatic Institute in Bristol where he became intrigued with nitrous oxide laughing gas He and his friends, inventor James Watt, poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey all became regular users Davy tried many different gases on himself and others but preferred nitrous oxide for the euphoria and altered consciousness He was accused of using it for sexual exploitation Although he recognized and noted its use as an anesthetic, for which there was great need, this use was never developed In 1801 Davy received an appointment to the Royal Institute in London Always the showman, his lectures were very popular Davy was fascinated by Volta s new battery and used electrolysis to isolate the elements potassium and sodium He used the latter for dramatic demonstrations Young girls flocked to his lectures including Mary Shelly whose Professor Waldman gives similar lectures to Frankenstein Vitalism, the idea that some innate force differentiated humans from other animals, was hotly debated This concept was at the heart of Mary Shelly s plot With the advent of Volta s battery, bizarre experiments were conducted to see if electricity could be the vital force Victor Frankenstein may have been inspired by German scientist Johann Ritter who tested the effects of electricity on himself, on live animals, and to revive dead animals and possibly human cadavers Davy achieved even greater recognition with the Davy safety lamp, an invention that saved the lives of countless miners who were continually getting blown away by methane explosions He was knighted and became President of the Royal Society Success made him increasingly contentious, particularly towards his assistant, Michael Faraday, whose later study of electromagnetism would lead him to develop the electric motor and eclipse the fame of his mentor Late in life Davy wrote Consolations in Travel a strange mix of philosophy and science fiction which influenced many in the upcoming generation of scientists including Charles Babbage and Charles Darwin Holmes shows us how new ideas entered the public perception We see the seeds of change Reliance on faith and mysterious forces is challenged by scientific reason The romantic poets were quick to react to the mechanistic explanations of science Did science destroy mystery and beauty If one sees a rainbow as distinct wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation what does that mean for the rainbow as a source of wonder and inspiration Does it lose its magical promise Are human feelings merely the result of chemical processes Whatever our opinion, today we are used to such questions, but in the Romantic Era these thoughts were new and startling Holmes engaging book gives us a unique look into this era of dramatic discovery.

  5. says:

    Description The Age of Wonder is Richard Holmes first major work of biography for a decade It has been inspired by the scientific ferment that swept through Britain at the end of the 18th century, and which Holmes now radically redefines as the revolution of Romantic Science.Never has a book left me feeling so completely inadequate, however it is highly probable that I am not alone in this sentiment So whilst none of the information could be deemed as original, this book is put together to engender a true scientific lust in those younguns on whose shoulders the future lies Truly engrossing and highly recommended.I must own up to be the owner of an un pc mind because I was tickled to tickledum with Fawaday Mea culpa.NONFIC NOVEMBER 2015 CR White Mughals5 A History of England from the Tudors to the Stuarts3 Rome and the Barbarians4 Field Notes From A Hidden City3 The King s Jews Money, Massacre and Exodus in Medieval EnglandCR A History of Palestine 634 10993 Charlotte Bront A Life3 The Alhambra5 A Long Walk in the Himalaya A Trek from the Ganges to Kashmir3 Buddhist Warfare4 A Gathering of SpoonsAB A Brief History of Roman Britain Conquest and Civilization4 Victorian Glassworlds Glass Culture and the Imagination, 1830 18803 Food Safari4 She Wolves3 India A Portrait2 The Archaeology of Ancient Sicily5 Classics of Russian LiteratureCR The Battle of Salamis5 Lost Worlds of South America4 The Age of Wonder

  6. says:

    I was a little upset at this book for having to end Holmes writes with a palpable compassion for his subjects The book s major players are so fully animated that I couldn t help but feel a sadness at parting with these historical figures, most of whom I had never heard of before and all of whom, of course, had been dead for than a century before I was born I think that the way Holmes structured the book, with the same kind of intricate plot architecture as a good 19th century novel, really contributed to this feeling the people introduced in the opening chapters are still there, growing old and being swept aside by the inevitable tides of the decades, in the final ones He is a master at seamlessly weaving in excerpts from his primary sources letters, diaries, scientific log books and also not afraid to throw in some scatological references, of a academic bent.

  7. says:

    AWE an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like I would like to put in an official plea to wrest the word AWE back from the frantically freaked out readers of teen romance who squawk epic awesomeness , sorry, that should be EPIC AWESOMENESS and then a spasm with the shift 1 key, because words just cannot express the eloquence they feel at an author s ability to re hash perennial adolescent angst at balancing individuality with conformity, magi mixed with an awakening interest in sex.Howzabout this for a catalogue of the truly awe inspiring Herschel, who had the intellectual audacity to conceive of deep space in the 1780 s this is , and to realise that a Newtonian reflector telescope would be better suited to plumbing its depths than the refractor type And since large reflector telescopes were unavailable, designed and made his own, innovating the use of exquisitely fine reflective specula cast in metal rather than glass Or the story of the 18th century space race between France and Britain What must it have been like to take off from the ground suspended from a cloud in a paper bag Intrepid might be a word specifically invented for those early aeronauts Then there is Humphrey Davy, yes, he of the safety lamp, who nearly killed himself inhaling carbon monoxide Deliberately To find out about its properties The real tragedy is that he discovered the euphoria without risk that could be induced by nitrous oxide laughing gas , but unfortunately didn t recognize how it might be used as an anaesthetic The world had to wait for ether and chloroform, too late for poor Fanny Burney who underwent excruciating surgery for breast cancer in 1811 And survived Or restless Mungo Park, who could not settle to life as a doctor in the cold wet climate of Peebles, and set off on a second, fatal voyage ah the error was to allow imperial interference to try to find the legendary city of Timbuktu.Richard Holmes is the opposite of a serial killer, he is a serial bringer to life of the huge personalities, these lions of society at a time when there was still no concept of different disciplines Both poet and natural philosopher , these men and occasionally women too Caroline Herschel for example were engaged in examining the wonder of nature and in expressing their sense of awe in verse There was an exchange of ideas between the likes of Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and the men who became the first professional scientists Added into this heady mixture there is also the history of the venerable institutions that funded and promoted research and ideas the Royal Society, and what later, in 1831, would become the British Association for the Advancement of Science Holmes has an ease and elegance of expression that kept this science challenged reader hooked like a fish on a line He can even explain Schelling s Naturphilosophie in understandable terms, a feat for which he deserves the five stars alone.

  8. says:

    Excellent account of the second scientific revolution led by astronomy and chemistry at the end of the 18th century The period Holmes covers with his engaging biographical focus on the careers of a handful of individuals is between Cook s voyage of 1768 and Darwin s of 1831 In this epoch of Romantic science, leading figures tended to see no conflict between what they did as scientists and as poets and philosophers In fact, the term science was not widely adopted until 1834 Holmes account delves into Joseph Bank s early study of the Tahitians Edenic state, William Herschel and his sister Caroline s astronomical revelations of the Milky Way as one among countless other evolving galaxies, Humphry Davy s elucidation of the carbon cycle, and the close attention paid by major figures in poetry and philosophy in such advances As an example of the pleasurable range of this delightful quilt of a book, the craze in ballooning and the origins of Mary Shelley s Frankenstein each get chapters Holmes succeeds is his intentions not just to cover science versus religion, sicence versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics We need a wider, generous, imaginative perspective Above all, perhaps, we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe.

  9. says:

    This is a wonderful book about science during the Romantic era The first few chapters are best for understanding the development of science The last few chapters are best for understanding the interactions between science and culture, mostly prose and poetry At the beginning of the story, the English word scientist did not even exist Scientists were called philosophers , and many of the greatest works of scientists during this era, were philosophical speculations This is a beautiful book, in all senses of the word.

  10. says:

    Wow I finished this yesterday, and I m still reeling Who knew that Balloonists soaring across the skies fomented the French Revolution Or that poets like Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth all the Romantic greats thought they were akin to the great scientists of the age, and the scientists themselves were poets Actually, scientist was not yet a word when Herschel was exploding European mindsets with his discoveries of the infinity of the stars Discoverers like Herschel, Faraday, Davy, and their contemporaries were thought of as philosophers or clergymen or physicians Yet the foundations of modern science like impartial observations, inductive reasoning, avoiding conclusions based upon what God supposedly set up, blind studies, all had their origins in the Age of Romanticism.Science was not yet compartmentalized, nor was it separate from what we today lump together as the Humanities, as if uncovering the laws of nature and the cosmos itself were not human endeavors.Holmes includes in his history poems about scientic discoveries by poets still revered today, as well as poems by the great innovators like Joseph Banks and Humphrey Davy Banks, who went to Tahiti in the late 18th century, a Briton of the ruling class, went native The descriptions of him doing the Tahitian version of dirty dancing are so vivid I could see them as in a movie Did I mention that he, in effect, founded anthroplology Women Well, as usual, they were either witty and beautiful, like Lady Davy, or serious and knowledgeable while enabling their menfolk to sweep the skies, like Caroline Herschel There seems to have been an unwritten law that spinsters lived only to serve Caroline Herschel was a faithful dog to her famous brother, but, on her own, she, too, discovered comets Like a talking dog, she was a curiosity in society, a woman who actually innovated Oh, her brother did manage to get a lifetime Royal stipend for her stargazing, making her the first female in England to get a salary Her brother arranged for this stipend when he finally got married, and his wife didn t want Caroline hanging around the the house Maybe I m being too harsh Holmes certainly doesn t put it in these terms He is way too polite For instance, although he chronicles Davy s arrogance my term and his damaging treatment of his faithful protoge and lab assistant, Holmes is careful not to come right out and say that he was a nasty man Part of Holmes s genius as a historian is his ability to portray people objectively, but give the reader enough to form his or her opinion What he does is to objectively state what Davy, for instance, did, and how his peers felt about Davy s heading the Royal Society.This is a 600 page book To illustrate its sweep and scope would make a review of far greater length and breadth than appropriate for Goodreads Unless you hate history and biography, and only read torrid romances or improbable action novels, this is a wonderful, engrossing read One caveat in a book this long with portrayals of so many people, an eBook is than helpful If someone appears on a page, and you don t recall who it is, you touch his or her name, and, on the Nook Tablets, up pops Find You touch it, and it gives you every sentence in the book with that person s name Oh, that person This has the added benefit of helping you remember events better The repetition alone aids long term memory But then again, I m an old lady Maybe you don t need such jogs to recall what Holmes wrote so winningly of.